How does password salt help against a rainbow table attack


I'm having some trouble understanding the purpose of a salt to a password. It's my understanding that the primary use is to hamper a rainbow table attack. However, the methods I've seen to implement this don't seem to really make the problem harder.

I've seen many tutorials suggesting that the salt be used as the following:

$hash =  md5($salt.$password)

The reasoning being that the hash now maps not to the original password, but a combination of the password and the salt. But say $salt=foo and $password=bar and $hash=3858f62230ac3c915f300c664312c63f. Now somebody with a rainbow table could reverse the hash and come up with the input "foobar". They could then try all combinations of passwords (f, fo, foo, … oobar, obar, bar, ar, ar). It might take a few more milliseconds to get the password, but not much else.

The other use I've seen is on my linux system. In the /etc/shadow the hashed passwords are actually stored with the salt. For example, a salt of "foo" and password of "bar" would hash to this: $1$foo$te5SBM.7C25fFDu6bIRbX1. If a hacker somehow were able to get his hands on this file, I don't see what purpose the salt serves, since the reverse hash of te5SBM.7C25fFDu6bIRbX is known to contain "foo".

Thanks for any light anybody can shed on this.

EDIT: Thanks for the help. To summarize what I understand, the salt makes the hashed password more complex, thus making it much less likely to exist in a precomputed rainbow table. What I misunderstood before was that I was assuming a rainbow table existed for ALL hashes.

Best Answer

A public salt will not make dictionary attacks harder when cracking a single password. As you've pointed out, the attacker has access to both the hashed password and the salt, so when running the dictionary attack, she can simply use the known salt when attempting to crack the password.

A public salt does two things: makes it more time-consuming to crack a large list of passwords, and makes it infeasible to use a rainbow table.

To understand the first one, imagine a single password file that contains hundreds of usernames and passwords. Without a salt, I could compute "md5(attempt[0])", and then scan through the file to see if that hash shows up anywhere. If salts are present, then I have to compute "md5(salt[a] . attempt[0])", compare against entry A, then "md5(salt[b] . attempt[0])", compare against entry B, etc. Now I have n times as much work to do, where n is the number of usernames and passwords contained in the file.

To understand the second one, you have to understand what a rainbow table is. A rainbow table is a large list of pre-computed hashes for commonly-used passwords. Imagine again the password file without salts. All I have to do is go through each line of the file, pull out the hashed password, and look it up in the rainbow table. I never have to compute a single hash. If the look-up is considerably faster than the hash function (which it probably is), this will considerably speed up cracking the file.

But if the password file is salted, then the rainbow table would have to contain "salt . password" pre-hashed. If the salt is sufficiently random, this is very unlikely. I'll probably have things like "hello" and "foobar" and "qwerty" in my list of commonly-used, pre-hashed passwords (the rainbow table), but I'm not going to have things like "jX95psDZhello" or "LPgB0sdgxfoobar" or "dZVUABJtqwerty" pre-computed. That would make the rainbow table prohibitively large.

So, the salt reduces the attacker back to one-computation-per-row-per-attempt, which, when coupled with a sufficiently long, sufficiently random password, is (generally speaking) uncrackable.

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