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In all UNIX-like operating systems there are several constants, and one of them is the file /etc/passwd and how it works. For user authentication to work properly you need (minimally) some sort of file(s) with UID to username mappings, GID to groupname mappings, passwords for the users, and other misc. info. The problem with this is that everyone needs access to the passwd file, every time you do an ls it gets checked, so how do you store all those passwords safely, yet keep them world readable? For many years the solution has been quite simple and effective, simply hash the passwords, and store the hash, when a user needs to authenticate take the password they enter it, hash it, and if it matches then it was obviously the same password. The problem with this is that computing power has grown enormously and I can now take a copy of your passwd file, and try to brute force it open in a reasonable amount of time. So to solve this several solutions exist:

Several OS's take the first solution, Linux has implemented the second for quite a while now, it is called shadow passwords. In the passwd file, your passwd is simply replaced by an 'x', which tells the system to check your passwd against the shadow file. Anyone can still read the passwd file, but only root has read access to the shadow file (the same is done for the group file and its passwords). Seems simple enough but until recently implementing shadow passwords was a royal pain. You had to recompile all your programs that checked passwords (login, ftpd, etc, etc) and this obviously takes quite a bit of effort. This is where Red Hat shines through, in its reliance on PAM.

To implement shadow passwords you must do two things. The first is relatively simple, changing the password file, but the second can be a pain. You have to make sure all your programs have shadow password support, which can be quite painful in some cases (this is a very strong reason why more distributions should ship with PAM).

Because of Red Hat's reliance on PAM for authentication, to implement a new authentication scheme all you need to do it add a PAM module that understands it and edit the config file for whichever program (say login) allowing it to use that module to do authentication. No recompiling, and a minimal amount of fuss and muss, right? In Red Hat 6.0 you are given the option during installation to choose shadow passwords, or you can implement them later via the pwconv and grpconv utilities that ship with the shadow-utils package. Most other distributions also have shadow password support, and implementation difficulty varies somewhat. Now for an attacker to look at the hashed passwords they must go to quite a bit more effort then simply copying the /etc/passwd file. Also make sure to occasionally run pwconv and in order to ensure all passwords are in fact shadowed. Sometimes passwords will get left in /etc/passwd, and not be sent to /etc/shadow as they should be by some utilities that edit the password file.

Cracking passwords

In Linux the passwords are stored in a hashed format, however this does not make them irretrievable, chances are you cannot reverse engineer the password from the resulting hash, however you can hash a list of words and compare them. If the results match then you have found the password, this is why good passwords are critical, and dictionary words are a terrible idea. Even with a shadow passwords file the passwords are still accessible by the root user, and if you have improperly written scripts or programs that run as root (say a www based CGI script) the password file may be retrieved by attackers. The majority of current password cracking software also allows running on multiple hosts in parallel to speed things up. 

John the ripper

An efficient password cracker available from: http://www.false.com/security/john/.


The original widespread password cracker (as far as I know), you can get it at: http://www.users.dircon.co.uk/~crypto/.

Saltine cracker

Another password cracker with network capabilities, you can download it from: http://www.thegrid.net/gravitino/products.html.


VCU (Velocity Cracking Utilities) is a windows based programs to aid in cracking passwords, "VCU attempts to make the cracking of passwords a simple task for computer users of any experience level.". You can download it from: http://wilter.com/wf/vcu/.

I hope this is sufficient motivation to use shadow passwords and a stronger hash like MD5 (which Red Hat 6.0 supports, I don't know of other distributions supporting it).

Password storage


This is something many people don't think about much. How can you securely store passwords? The most obvious method is to memorize them, this however has it's drawbacks, if you administer 30 different sites you generally want to have 30 different passwords, and a good password is 8+ characters in length and generally not the easiest thing to remember. This leads to many people using the same passwords on several systems (come on, admit it). One of the easiest methods is to write passwords down. This is usually a BIG NO-NO; you'd be surprised what people find lying around, and what they find if they are looking for it. A better option is to store passwords in an encrypted format, usually electronically on your computer or palm pilot, this way you only have to remember one password to unlock the rest which you can then use. Something as simple as PGP or GnuPG can be used to accomplish this. 


Gpasman is an application that requires GTK (relatively easily to install on a non Gnome system, just load up the GTK libs). It encrypts your passwords using the rc2 algorithm. Upon startup of the program you type in your master password, and (assuming it is correct) you are presented with a nice list of your user accounts, sites, passwords and a comment field. Gpasman is available at: http://www.student.wau.nl/~olivier/gpasman/.


Strip is a palm pilot program for storing passwords securely and can also be used to generate passwords. It is GNU licensed and available from: http://www.zetetic.net/products.html


Security Portal

Written by Kurt Seifried