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I'm seeing many sites offering one or two "security questions" that have to be answered by choosing characters at specific indexes, in addition to username + password. For example:

"What is your mother's maiden name?"
1:[] 5:[] 8:[]

And you're meant to enter the first, fifth and eighth characters of the answer you've set up.

Now ignoring the fact that it's not really adding another factor (it's still what you know, not what you have etc.), and social engineering, etc., is there a way to securely store the information server side in a hashed format, and still provide the functionality?

In other words, say a security answer is "smith". I want to be able to store that in some hashed format, so that when the user enters their 1st, 3rd and 4rth character, I'll be able to check whether that matches. I don't want to store "smith" encrypted - I want to be able to take the hashed value of "smith" and the user's input and say "yup, it's fine" or "nope, you got it wrong". Is this possible? What algorithm(s) work well for this?

I ask, because my bank's mobile app has started using this for log in, and I can't seem to figure out how this can be achieved without being able to recover "smith" from the stored value.

marked as duplicate by Gilles, WhiteWinterWolf, M'vy, Scott Pack, Stephane Jul 24 '15 at 10:21

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  • That is the stupidest security measure I've ever heard of. It's annoying / time consuming for humans to figure out what the eighth character in something is, but it's trivial for a computer. The information it's asking for is publicly available, and even if it weren't, it's decreasing the entropy of the answer by slicing it, and it's making the security question less useful as a security question because you're sending that information every time. And of course first character's probably going to be uppercase letter... sigh Your bank sucks. – Parthian Shot Jul 23 '15 at 23:48
  • Tbf, they ask for username, password AND this 3 char check. But yeah, it seems it's not really adding much other than "hey look...we've got this extra pseudo security"!! – ashic Jul 24 '15 at 9:24
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In all generality, no, you cannot use such a scheme with a storage based on hashing and still expect the same kind of security as with full-password hashing as it is normally practised.

Here is the demonstration: the point of storing the hashed password, and not the plaintext password, is that you just assume that attackers may obtain a (possibly read-only) glimpse of the server's contents (e.g. with a stolen backup tape). With that copy, the attacker can emulate the server behaviour on his own machines.

In particular, the attacker can:

  1. Start his emulation of the server.
  2. Begin an authentication procedure with that emulated server. The server asks for, say, the 1st, 5th and 8th letters of the user's password.
  3. The attacker snapshots the whole emulated server state at that point.
  4. For every possible combination of three letters, the attacker restart the emulated server at the snapshot point, enter the three letters, and see if the emulated server is happy or not.
  5. Once the attacker has found the right combination of three letters (there are only 26×26×26 = 17576 combinations of three letters, which is really few for an automated attacker who can do things by the million -- remember that all of this happens on the emulated server, on the attacker's own machines), he can start over at step 1, to guess other letters. After a few iterations, the attacker has the complete user's password, and can confidently log onto the real server.

In practice, the attacker does not need to really set up a complete virtual machine with snapshots; he can just concentrate on the few kilobytes of code that handle the authentication process. But basing the description on snapshots and server emulation shows that this kind of attack is generic, and there is nothing that can be done to protect against it as long as the attack model applies.


To again achieve security, then, the model must be made not to apply. In the discussion above, I assume that the attacker can get a copy of the server state. Thus, to prevent that attack, we must make it so that there is at least part of the server state that the attacker cannot plunder. In that case, just store a symmetric key K in that attacker-free part of the server, and use symmetric encryption for storing the passwords.

I expect most sites that asks for letter combinations within the user's password to use such reversible encryption. This can be considered as "safe" if the key K is indeed kept out of reach of attackers, which is hard unless you do it seriously (and expensively).

Still in all generality, asking for three letters means that you grant entry to random attackers with probability 1/17576, which is, in my opinion, a bit too high for comfort, considering that we are talking about a publicly reachable server. The whole concept of asking only for some letters is meant to be "more secure" but in fact it is more about sprinkling some obnoxious ritual elements so that you may feel more secure, possibly at the expense of actual security.

  • I feel this answer can be improved with the addition of monkeys. – Deer Hunter Jul 23 '15 at 18:42

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