Using a single password for Authentication and Encryption

- (2 min read)

A common scenario in web applications involve using a single password as a means of authentication as well as a means to derive a secret for use in encrypting data.

Many strong key derivation functions like pbkdf2, bcrypt or scrypt have properties that make them strong password hashing functions as well. However, the same derived value cannot be used as an encryption key and a password hash. The password hash value has to be stored by the server to compare against the provided password in future authentication attempts. If this same value is used as an encryption key, an attacker that compromises the server will be able to decrypt the data easily.

There is an easy solution for this problem. While I will be using pbkdf2 as an example, pbkdf2 can be substituted for any strong algorithm like bcrypt or scrypt.

  1. Generate a random key k using a cryptographically secure random number generator. This means using CryptGenRandom on Windows and /dev/urandom on *nix operating systems. This random key k will be used for encryption.

  2. Generate two salts s1 and s2 and store them in plaintext.

  3. Compute pbkdf2(password, s1) and store this value. This will be the password hash you use to compare against for future authentication attempts.

  4. Compute pbkdf2(password, s2) xor k and store this value.

  5. When the random key k is required for encrypting or decrypting data, simply xor the value of pbkdf2(password, s2) against the value computed in step 4.

The advantage of this scheme is that the encryption key k is not tied to the password. This means that passwords can be changed without re-encrypting the data with a new key repeating steps 1 - 4. A very useful property to have in the event of a server compromise where passwords have to be reset en masse.