Monday, March 19, 2012

Don't use bcrypt

(Edit: Some numbers for you people who like numbers)

If you're already using bcrypt, relax, you're fine, probably. However, if you're looking for a key derivation function (or in bcrypt's case, password encryption function) for a new project, bcrypt is probably not the best one you can pick. In fact, there are two algorithms which are each better in a different way than bcrypt, and also widely available across many platforms.

I write this post because I've noticed a sort of "JUST USE BCRYPT" cargo cult (thanks Coda Hale!) This is absolutely the wrong attitude to have about cryptography. Even though people who know much more about cryptography than I do have done an amazing job packaging these ciphers into easy-to-use libraries, use of cryptography is not something you undertake lightly. Please know what you're doing when you're using it, or else it isn't going to help you.

The first cipher I'd suggest you consider besides bcrypt is PBKDF2. It's ubiquitous and time-tested with an academic pedigree from RSA Labs, you know, the guys who invented much of the cryptographic ecosystem we use today. Like bcrypt, PBKDF2 has an adjustable work factor. Unlike bcrypt, PBKDF2 has been the subject of intense research and still remains the best conservative choice.

There has been considerably less research into the soundness of bcrypt as a key derivation function as compared to PBKDF2, and simply for that reason alone bcrypt is much more of an unknown as to what future attacks may be discovered against it. bcrypt has a higher theoretical-safety-to-compute-time factor than PBKDF2, but that won't help you if an attack is discovered which mitigates bcrypt's computational complexity. Such attacks have been found in the past against ciphers like 3DES. Where 3DES uses a 168-bit key, various attacks have reduced that key size's effectiveness to 80-bits.

PBKDF2 is used by WPA, popular password safes like 1Password and LastPass, and full-disk encryption tools like TrueCrypt and FileVault. While I often poke fun at Lamer News as a Sinatra antipattern, I have to applaud antirez on his choice of PBKDF2 when he got bombarded with a "just use bcrypt!" attack (although bro, antirez, there's a PBKDF2 gem you can use, you don't have to vendor it)

The second cipher to consider is scrypt. Not only does scrypt give you more theoretical safety than bcrypt per unit compute time, but it also allows you to configure the amount of space in memory needed to compute the result. Where algorithms like PBKDF2 and bcrypt work in-place in memory, scrypt is a "memory-hard" algorithm, and thus makes a brute-force attacker pay penalties both in CPU and in memory. While scrypt's cryptographic soundness, like bcrypt's, is poorly researched, from a pure algorithmic perspective it's superior on all fronts.

The next time you need to pick a key derivation function, please, don't use bcrypt.


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