What is a password salt?

In cryptography, a salt is random data that is used as an additional input to a one-way function that hashes a password or passphrase. The primary function of salts is to defend against dictionary attacks and pre-computed rainbow table attacks.

A new salt is randomly generated for each password. In a typical setting, the salt and the password are concatenated and processed with a cryptographic hash function, and the resulting output (but not the original password) is stored with the salt in a database. Hashing allows for later authentication while defending against compromise of the plaintext password in the event that the database is somehow compromised.

Cryptographic salts are broadly used in many modern computer systems, from Unix system credentials to Internet security.

Benefits

A public salt makes it more time-consuming to crack a list of passwords. However, it does not make dictionary attacks harder when cracking a single password. The attacker has access to both the hashed password and the salt, so when running the dictionary attack, the attacker can simply use the known salt when attempting to crack the password.

To understand the difference between cracking a single password and a set of them, consider a single password file that contains hundreds of usernames and passwords. Without a salt, an attacker could compute hash(attempt[ 0 ]), and then check whether that hash appears anywhere in the file. The likelihood of a match, i.e. cracking one of the passwords with that attempt, increases with the number of passwords in the file. If salts are present, then the attacker would have to compute hash(salt[ a ] . attempt[ 0 ]), where "." denotes concatenation, compare against entry A, then hash(salt[ b ] . attempt[ 0 ]), compare against entry B, and so on. This defeats "reusing" hashes in attempts to crack multiple passwords.

Salts also combat the use of rainbow tables for cracking passwords. A rainbow table is a large list of pre-computed hashes for commonly used passwords. For a password file without salts, an attacker can go through each entry and look up the hashed password in the rainbow table. If the look-up is considerably faster than the hash function (which it often is), this will considerably speed up cracking the file. However, if the password file is salted, then the rainbow table would have to contain "salt . password" pre-hashed. If the salt is long enough and sufficiently random, this is very unlikely. Unsalted passwords chosen by humans tend to be vulnerable to dictionary attacks since they have to be both short and meaningful enough to be memorized. Even a small dictionary (or its hashed equivalent, a rainbow table) has a significant chance of cracking the most commonly used passwords. Since salts do not have to be memorized by humans they can make the size of the rainbow table required for a successful attack prohibitively large without placing a burden on the users.

More technically, salts protect against rainbow tables as they, in effect, extend the length and potentially the complexity of the password. If the rainbow tables do not have passwords matching the length (e.g. an 8-byte password, and 2-byte salt, is effectively a 10-byte password) and complexity (non-alphanumeric salt increases the complexity of strictly alphanumeric passwords) of the salted password, then the password will not be found. If found, one will have to remove the salt from the password before it can be used.

Additional benefits

The modern shadow password system, in which password hashes and other security data are stored in a non-public file, somewhat mitigates these concerns. However, they remain relevant in multi-server installations which use centralized password management systems to push passwords or password hashes to multiple systems. In such installations, the root account on each individual system may be treated as less trusted than the administrators of the centralized password system, so it remains worthwhile to ensure that the security of the password hashing algorithm, including the generation of unique salt values, is adequate.

Salts also make dictionary attacks and brute-force attacks for cracking large numbers of passwords much slower (but not in the case of cracking just one password). Without salts, an attacker who is cracking many passwords at the same time only needs to hash each password guess once, and compare it to all the hashes. However, with salts, each password will likely have a different salt; so each guess would have to be hashed separately for each salt, which is much slower since hashing is generally computationally expensive.

Another (lesser) benefit of a salt is as follows: two users might choose the same string as their password, or the same user might choose to use the same password on two machines. Without a salt, this password would be stored as the same hash string in the password file. This would disclose the fact that the two accounts have the same password, allowing anyone who knows one of the account's passwords to access the other account. By salting the passwords with two random characters, the odds are that even if two accounts use the same password, no one can discover this by reading password files.