NIST Password Requirements
Developing sound policies is an extremely important part of keeping your systems and users secure. Unless you yourself are a security researcher, or building some extremely specialized or novel system, you’ll usually rely on industry best practices. Researching just what those best practices are can take just as much time as actually implementing them.
Thankfully, when it comes to password and authentication security, we don’t have to look very far. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) publishes, among many other things, Digital Identity Guidelines containing recommendations on user authentication. Rather than come up with your own custom password rules, you can follow these sensible policies from a trusted authority on security.
The last version of the guidelines was published in June 2017, and makes several recommendations on the constraints and validations you should perform on incoming passwords (as described in section 22.214.171.124):
- require passwords be at least 8 characters long
- allow passwords to be at least 64 character long
- allow ASCII and Unicode characters, including spaces
- perform normalization on Unicode strings
- check incoming passwords against a list of commonly-used, expected, or compromised passwords, and reject if found
- don’t impose any complexity requirements (uppercase, number, non-alphanumeric, etc.)
For password collection and transmission:
- don’t allow password hints
- don’t allow security questions (custom or pre-canned)
- don’t expire passwords
- offer meaningful feedback when a password is rejected, optionally in the form of a password strength meter
- limit failed authentication attempts by fixed or variable rate-limiting, requiring a CAPTCHA, IP white list, or some other method
- allow users to paste passwords into login forms (facilitating the use of password managers)
- allow the user to display the password they’ve entered, either entirely or one character at a time, so they may verify their input
- only transmit passwords over an encrypted channel, such as SSL
- don’t use SMS or voice (PSTN) for two-factor/multi-factor authentication (2FA/MFA), instead an app or dedicated device for one-time passwords
And recommendations for how to store passwords include:
- store passwords salted and hashed using a suitable one-way key derivation function (such as PBKDF2)
- use a cost (work) factor suitably high given the function type (at least 10k for PBKDF2) and practical machine performance
The NIST guidelines contain several recommendations that run counter to what we commonly experience on systems and websites today. Minimum password lengths seem to be around 8 characters, but many sites often imposed seemingly arbitrary limits on the maximum length. Both Apple and Microsoft impose password complexity requirements. whereas Amazon doesn’t. Password phrases (long strings of words) make for good passwords, as they’re memorable and hard to brute-force crack, and password complexity requirements not only prevent their use but breed hard-to-remember strings. Without a password manager, users may be inclined to write them down or otherwise save them in an insecure location, diminishing their overall security. Moreover, using a known-bad password list weeds out most of the poor passwords that complexity rules were created to prevent.
As mobile devices are nearly ubiquitous, it’s become commonplace to use a user’s mobile phone number as an identifier, since it doesn’t change often and you can verify whether people have access to it. However, you can’t guarantee that the user is the only person who has access to the mobile number. SIM Swapping, the practice of surreptitiously overtaking a mobile account, has become a common way to target and exploit 2FA that uses SMS or voice as the second step. Through phishing, social engineering, or black market websites, attackers can defeat an ostensibly secure account. Google Authenticator and Authy both provide software time-based one-time passwords, whereas YubiKey provides a physical security key for 2FA and MFA.
Accepting Unicode as passwords is great for supporting international users. However, similar characters can come from different sources, and identical-looking characters can be different underneath. For example, consider the following code (adapted from MDN docs on String.normalization):
const first = '\u212B'; // "Å" const second = '\u0041\u030A'; // "Å" first === second; // false first.normalize('NFKC') === second.normalize('NFKC'); // true
Normalization either combines (using NFKC) or destructs (NFKD) Unicode characters to uniform representations. This ensures the same characters are consistently compared to the stored password.
Known-Bad Password List
Checking incoming new passwords against a list of commonly-used, expected, or compromised (known-bad) passwords means you actually have a list of said passwords somewhere on your system. You never want to send your passwords to an external service for validation, as you have no control how the password is stored or processed. Either store the list and perform validation on the application server itself, or store the list in a separate data store, such as a properly-indexed SQL table, or Redis set. I prefer a separate data store because changes to the list don’t require deploying new versions, and bundling password lists increases code bundle size.
As for the password list itself, the SecLists Common-Credentials repository is a popular source. Maintained by the OWASP Foundation, it contains common passwords and PINs from a several of sources, in a variety of sizes. A commonly used list is
100k-most-used-passwords-NCSC.txt, which contains the 100,000 most used passwords according to the National Computer Security Center (part of the NSA).
Password Hashing Function
While the NIST only mentions PBKDF2 as a recommendation for a one-way key derivation function, several other functions exist that may be more suitable for your application. As noted in blog posts and Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange answers, other functions such as bcrypt, scrypt, and Argon2 offer somewhat more security than PBKDF2 due to advancements in attacks incorporating GPU parallelization and custom FPGAs. However, it is my understanding that any function using a high enough work factor should offer suitable protection for your password storage.
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