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A passphrase is a sequence of words or other text used to control access to a computer system, program or data. A passphrase is similar to a password in usage, but is generally longer for added security. Passphrases are often used to control both access to, and operation of, cryptographic programs and systems. Passphrases are particularly applicable to systems that use the passphrase as an encryption key. The origin of the term is by analogy with password. The modern concept of passphrases is believed to have been invented by Sigmund N. Porter[1] in 1982.


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Considering that the entropy of written English is less than 1.1 bits per character [2], pass phrases can be relatively weak. NIST has estimated that the 23 character pass phrase "IamtheCapitanofthePina4" contains a 45 bit-strength. The equation employed here is:[3]

4 bits (1st character) + 14 bits (characters 2–8) + 18 bits (characters 9–20) + 3 bits (characters 21–23) + 6 bits (bonus for upper case, lower case, and alphanumeric) = 45 bits

Using this guideline, to achieve the 80-bit strength recommended for high security (non-military) by NIST, a passphrase would need to be 58 characters long, assuming a composition that includes uppercase and alphanumeric.

There is room for debate regarding the applicability of this equation, depending on the number of bits of entropy assigned. For example, five-letter words each contain 2.3 bits of entropy, which would mean only a 35-character passphrase is necessary to achieve 80 bit strength.[4]

If the words or components of a passphrase may be found in a language dictionary—especially one available as electronic input to a software program—the passphrase is rendered more vulnerable to dictionary attack. This is a particular issue if the entire phrase can be found in a book of quotations or phrase compilations. However, the required effort (in time and cost) can be made impracticably high if there are enough words in the passphrase and how randomly they are chosen and ordered in the passphrase. The number of combinations which would have to be tested under sufficient conditions make a dictionary attack so difficult as to be infeasible. These are difficult conditions to meet, and selecting at least one word that cannot be found in any dictionary significantly increases passphrase strength.

For example, the widely used cryptography standard OpenPGP requires that a user make up a passphrase that must be entered whenever encrypting, decrypting, or signing messages. Internet services like CryptoHeaven and Hushmail provide free encrypted e-mail or file sharing services, but the security present depends almost entirely on the quality of the chosen passphrase.Template:Citation needed

Compared to passwords[]

Passphrases differ from passwords. A password is usually short—six to ten characters. Such passwords may be adequate for various applications (if frequently changed, if chosen using an appropriate policy, if not found in dictionaries, if sufficiently random, and/or if the system prevents online guessing, etc.) such as:

  • Logging onto computer systems
  • Negotiating keys in an interactive setting (e.g. using password-authenticated key agreement)
  • Enabling a smart-card or PIN for an ATM card (e.g. where the password data (hopefully) cannot be extracted)

But passwords are typically not safe to use as keys for standalone security systems (e.g., encryption systems) that expose data to enable offline password guessing by an attacker. Passphrases are generally stronger, and a clearly better choice in these cases. First, they usually are (and always should be) much longer—20 to 30 characters or more is typical—making some kinds of brute force attacks entirely impractical. Second, if well chosen, they will not be found in any phrase or quote dictionary, so such dictionary attacks will be almost impossible. Third, they can be structured to be more easily memorable than passwords without being written down, reducing the risk of hardcopy theft.

Passphrase selection[]

Typical advice about choosing a passphrase includes suggestions that it should be:

  • Long enough to be hard to guess (eg, automatically by a search program, as from a list of famous phrases).
  • Not a famous quotation from literature, holy books, et cetera
  • Hard to guess by intuition—even by someone who knows the user well
  • Easy to remember and type accurately
  • For better security, any easily memorable encoding at your own level can be applied.

Example methods[]

One method to create a strong passphrase is to use dice to select words at random from a long list, a technique often referred to as diceware. While such a collection of words might appear to violate the "not from any dictionary" rule, the security is based entirely on the large number of possible ways to choose from the list of words and not from any secrecy about the words themselves. For example, if there are 7776 words in the list and six words are chosen randomly, then there are 77766 = 221073919720733357899776 combinations, providing about 78 bits of entropy. (The number 7776 was chosen to allow words to be selected by throwing five dice. 7776 = 65)

Another is to choose two phrases, turn one into an acronym, and include it in the second, making the final passphrase. For instance, using two English language typing exercises, we have the following. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, becomes tqbfjotld. Including it in, Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country, might produce, Now is the time for all good tqbfjotld to come to the aid of their country as the passphrase.

There are several points to note here, all relating to why this example pass phrase is not a good one.

  • It has appeared in public and so should be avoided by everyone.
  • It's long (which is a considerable virtue in theory) and requires a good typist (which is an overwhelming problem for most people in actual practice). (Whatever software is accepting the passphrase for testing should never echo it to your displayTemplate:Citation needed, lest shoulder surfers take advantage.) Typing errors are much more likely under such conditions, especially for extended phrases.
  • It doesn't contain any non-alphabetic characters. Converting, say, the 'l' (Latin small letter L) in the acronym to a '1' (digit one) would be an improvement.
  • Individuals and organizations serious about cracking computer security have compiled lists of passwords derived in this manner from the most common quotations, song lyrics, and so on.

The PGP Passphrase FAQ[5] suggests a procedure that attempts a better balance between theoretical security and practicality than this example. All procedures for picking a passphrase involve a tradeoff between security and ease of use; security should be at least 'adequate' while not 'too seriously' annoying users. Both criteria should be evaluated to match particular situations.

Another supplementary approach to frustrating brute-force attacks is to derive the key from the passphrase using a deliberately-slow hash function, such as PBKDF2 as described in RFC 2898.

Windows support[]

If backward compatibility with Microsoft LAN Manager is not needed, in versions of Windows NT (including Windows 2000, Windows XP and later), a passphrase can be used as a substitute for a Windows password. If the passphrase is longer than 14 characters, this will also cause the very weak LM hash to not be generated.

Unix support[]

In recent versions of Unix-like operating systems such as Linux, OpenBSD, NetBSD, Solaris and FreeBSD, up to 255 character passphrases can be used.

See also[]


  1. Sigmund N. Porter. "A password extension for improved human factors". Computers and Security, 1(1):54-56, January 1982.
  2. Template:Cite web
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  5. Template:Cite web

External links[]

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