SCRAM: Salted Challenge Response Authentication Mechanism

SCRAM is an interesting proposal (RFC-5802) that aims to remove passwords being commonly sent across the wire. It does not appear to create additional requirements for certificates or shared secrets, so let’s see how it works.

The server is required to know the username in advance, but not the password, instead a hash of the password and a (per-user) salt and an iteration count which is used to create a challenge.

The client sends the username and a nonce. The server retrieves the salt and updates the iteration count and sends these back to the client as a challenge. The client hashes the password with the agreed upon hash function, and uses the salt and the iteration count in the calculation, and send it back to the server. The server is able to validate correctness of the hashed password with the information it has.  The server then sends back a hash which the client can check to validate the server.

There are several issues with it – the initial registration flow is left out, the requirements of the client and server to issue good nonces and maintain unique salts and iterations are high, and also the requirement for the server database itself to be secure – an exfiltration could enable brute force attacks.  Then it uses SHA-1 which is weak. The password is fixed and an update method would need to be designed for a full system.

Still it is interesting as a way to remove passwords being sent over the wire.

The protocol is used in XMPP as a standard mechanism for authentication.


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