Annual Computer Security Applications Conference 2015

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ErsatzPasswords: Ending Password Cracking and Detecting Password Leakage

In this work we present a simple, yet effective and practical, scheme to improve the security of stored password hashes, rendering their cracking detectable and insuperable at the same time. We utilize a machine-dependent function, such as a physically unclonable function (PUF) or a hardware security module (HSM) at the authentication server to prevent off-site password discovery, and a deception mechanism to alert us if such an action is attempted. Our scheme can be easily integrated with legacy systems without the need of any additional servers, changing the structure of the hashed password file or any client modifications. When using the scheme the structure of the hashed passwords file, etc/shadow or etc/master.passwd, will appear no different than in the traditional scheme (In a traditional Unix system. We believe the same could be made to be true in other systems.)
However, when an attacker exfiltrates the hashed passwords file and tries to crack it, the only passwords he will get are the ersatzpasswords - the "fake passwords." When an attempt to login using these ersatzpasswords is detected an alarm will be triggered in the system. Even with an adversary who knows about the scheme, cracking cannot be launched without physical access to the authentication server. The scheme also includes a secure backup mechanism in the event of a failure of the hardware dependent function. We discuss our implementation and provide some discussion in comparison to the traditional authentication scheme.


Mohammed Almeshekah    
King Saud University
Saudi Arabia

Christopher Gutierrez    
Purdue University
United States

Mikhail Atallah    
Purdue University
United States

Eugene Spafford    
Purdue University
United States


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