Rainbow Tables In Computing
A rainbow table is a precomputed cache table for the hashing outputs. This is used in cracking passwords.
Throughout the years the standard mechanism for storing passwords has evolved. In the beginning passwords were stored in plain text. The passwords were assumed to be safe because the data store the passwords were saved in required credentials to access it. However, malicious users were able to find ways to get large “data dumps” of usernames and passwords using attacks like SQL Injection. As more and more user credentials became public security experts realized we needed to do more to protect users’ passwords.
Developers were then encouraged to store passwords after running them through a one way hash such as SHA-256. When a user tried to authenticate, the hashed password would be compared to the hash of the password that they typed. This meant that the system only needed to store the one way hash of the password. If a breach occurred, then only the one way hashes of the passwords were exposed. Since the hashes were one way and it was computationally difficult to guess the passwords given the hash, it would not be worth the effort to figure out each password in the system. To defeat this new system malicious users decided to create lookup tables known as Rainbow Tables. Rather than doing the work of guessing each password every time, they computed the password once and stored it in a lookup table.
To mitigate the effectiveness of Rainbow Tables, developers were encouraged to use salted passwords. Instead of using just the password as input to the hash function, random bytes (known as salt) would be generated for every users’ password. The salt and the user’s password would be ran through the hash function which produced a unique hash. The salt would be stored alongside the user’s password in clear text. Then when a user tried to authenticate, the hashed password would be compared to the hash of the stored salt and the password that they typed. The unique salt meant that Rainbow Tables were no longer effective because the hash was different for every salt and password combination.
Developers are now encouraged to leverage adaptive one-way functions to store a password. Validation of passwords with adaptive one-way functions are intentionally resource (i.e. CPU, memory, etc) intensive. An adaptive one-way function allows configuring a “work factor” which can grow as hardware gets better. It is recommended that the “work factor” be tuned to take about 1 second to verify a password on your system. This trade off is to make it difficult for attackers to crack the password, but not so costly it puts excessive burden on your own system.
As the validation mechanism is purposefully delayed user’s are encouraged to exchange the long term credentials (i.e. username and password) for a short term credential (i.e. session, OAuth Token, etc). The short term credential can be validated quickly without any loss in security.
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