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Open Letter To All GNU/Linux and Unix Operating System Vendors

This is an open letter to all GNU/Linux and Unix operating system vendors.

Please provide some sort of RSS or Atom feed for just new releases. Nothing else. No package updates. No "community" posts. No extra fluff. It shouldn't include news about being included in the Google Summer of Code. It shouldn't provide a list of package security advisories. It shouldn't include why you think dropping one package for a fork is a good idea.

Did you just release "H4x0rz Linux 13.37"? Great! Publish that release news to a central spot, where only releases are posted, and give me a feed to parse. Still confused? Let me give you an example:

Perfect. Includes alpha releases, which are fine. But it focuses only on the new releases. No community news; that's what planets are for. No package updaets; I can figure those out in the OS itself. Just releases.

Here's a list of vendors that I would like to put in my feed reader, that I cannot find any such centralized feed source:

  • CentOS
  • Debian
  • Fedora
  • FreeBSD
  • Linux Mint
  • OpenBSD
  • OpenSUSE
  • Scientific Linux
  • Slackware

I know some projects have web forums, of which there may be a subforum dedicated to releases only. If that forum provides an RSS feed, perfect. I know some mailing list managers also provide RSS feeds for archives. That works too. I don't care where it comes from, just so long as there is a reliable source where I can get reliable, up-to-date news on just the latest release, nothing else.

If such feeds exist for these operating systems, please help me in the comments.


Masquerade Computer Network Interfaces

I just recently acquired a Raspberry Pi at SAINTCON 2013. I already had one, and forgot how much fun these little computers can be. I also forgot what a PITA they can be if you don't have your house hard wired to your switch for Internet access, and have to go into the basement to plug in. Plugging into a monitor and keyboard isn't a big deal for me, it's just the inconvenience of getting to the Internet. So, I downloaded Raspbian, ran through the initial config, including setting up an SSH server. The only thing left to do is get it online, and that will take a little config, which this post is about.

My laptop is connected wirelessly, so my ethernet port is available. So, I should be able to plug the Raspberry Pi into the laptop, and have it use the laptop's wireless connection. In other words, using my laptop as a router and a gateway. So, let's get started. Below is an image of what I am trying to accomplish:

Image showing the Raspberry Pi connected to the laptop, which in turn is connected to the Internet wirelessly.

The Raspberry Pi needs to be connected to the laptop via a standard twisted pair ethernet cable. The laptop will be connecting to the Internet wirelessly. So, while I still had my Raspberry Pi connected to the monitor and keyboard, while it is offline, I edit the /etc/network/interfaces file as follows:

# Raspberry Pi
iface eth0 inet static

Then, on my laptop, I gave my ethernet port the address of "" (mostly because no one ever uses this network- so it shouldn't conflict with your home/office). My laptop must be the gateway to the Internet for the Raspberry Pi. Notice that my laptop does not need a gateway for this interface. Instead, it's going to masquerade off of the "wlan0" interface, which already has a gateway configured:

# Laptop
iface eth0 inet static

Now, I need to make my laptop a router, so it can route packets from one network ( to another (whatever the "wlan0" interface is connected to). As such, run the following command as root:

echo 1 > /proc/sys/net/ipv4/ip_forward

Now, that this point, the "eth0" and "wlan0" interfaces are logically disconnected. Any packets coming into the "eth0" device won't make it any further. So, we need to create a logical pairing, called a "masquerade". This will allow packets going in "eth0" to exit "wlan0", and vice versa. So, as root, pull up a terminal, and type the following:

iptables -t nat -A POSTROUTING -o wlan0 -j MASQUERADE
iptables -A FORWARD -i eth0 -j ACCEPT

If you have any firewall rules in your INPUT chain, you will need to open up access for the network.

At this point, plug your Raspberry Pi into your laptop, SSH into the Pi, and see if you can ping out to the Internet.

NTP Drift File

Many things about NTP are elusive. At the casual user, there are a lot of things to understand: broacast, unicast, multicast, tally codes, servers, peers, stratum, delay, offset, jitter and so much more. Unless you setup your own NTP server, with the intent of providing accurate time keeping for clients, many of those terms can be discarded. However, one term you may want to be familiar with is "drift".

Clock drift is when clocks are either too fast or too slow compared to a reference clock. NTP version 4 has the ability to keep clocks accurate within 233 picoseconds (called "resolution"). Of course, to have this sort of accuracy, you need exceptionally low latency networks with specialized hardware. High volume stock exchanges might keep time accuracy at this level. Generally speaking, for the average NTP server and client on the Internet, comparing time in milliseconds is usually sufficient.

So, where does NTP keep track of the clock drift? For Debian/Ubuntu, you will find this in the /var/lib/ntp/ntp.drift file. In the file, you'll find either a positive or negative number. If it's positive, your clock is fast; if it's negative, your clock is slow. This number however, is not measured in seconds, milliseconds, nanoseconds or picoseconds. Instead, the number is measuring "parts per million", or PPM. It's still related to time, and you can convert this number to seconds, which I'll show you here.

There are 86,400 seconds in one day. If I were to divide that number into one million pieces, then there would be .0864 seconds per piece, or 86.4 milliseconds per piece.

86,400 s\div1,000,000=0.0864 s

My laptop connects to the standard NTP pool (, etc). I have a number of "3.322" in my drift file. This means that my laptop is fast by 3.322 PPM compared to the time source I am synchronizing my clock with (called the "sys_peer"). If I wanted to convert that to seconds, then:


My laptop is fast by roughly 287 milliseconds compared to my "sys_peer".

I just recently announced an open access NTP server. It was critical for me that this server be as accurate as possible with time keeping. So, all of the stratum 1 time servers that it connected to, had to have a ping latency of less than 10 milliseconds. Thankfully, I was able to find 3 servers with latencies less than 6 milliseconds, one of which is only 500 nanoseconds away. This became the preferred "sys_peer". The contents of its drift file currently is "-0.059". Again, converting this to seconds:


My NTP server is slow by roughly 5 milliseconds compared to the "sys_peer" time source at that specific moment.

Hopefully this clears up the NTP drift file, which I'm sure many of you have noticed. If you connect to NTP servers with very low latencies, then you'll notice that your drift file number approach zero. It's probably best to find 3 or 5 NTP servers that are physically close to you to keep those latencies low. If you travel a lot with your laptop, then connecting to the NTP pool would probably be best, so you don't need to constantly change the servers you're connecting to.

New Public NTP Server

I just assembled a public access NTP stratum 2 server. Feel free to use it, if you wish. It is considered "Open Access". It has a public webpage at This stratum 2 server has a few advantages over some others online:

  • It connects to three stratum 1 GPS time-sourced servers.
  • Each stratum 1 server is less than 6 milliseconds away.
  • The preferred stratum 1 server is about .5 milliseconds away.
  • Stratum 2 peering available- just contact me.
  • It has a 100 Mbit connection to the Internet.
  • The ISP sits behind four redundant upstream transit providers.
  • The ISP also peers on the Seattle Internet Exchange.

It is also available in the NTP pool at If you want to synchronize your computer with this server, then just add the following line in your /etc/ntp.conf configuration file:


Eventually, I'll also offer encrypted NTP for those who wish to have encrypted NTP packets on the wire (only if it's possible to offer both encrypted and unencrypted NTP simultaneously- I think it is). I'm also currently working on finding some other stratum 2 peers that are less than 30 milliseconds away. If you're running an NTP server, and want to peer with me, just let me know.

Hopefully, this will be of some benefit to the community. Is Now SSL Enabled

Just a quick update to say that I have enabled SSL, and forced it by default, for this blog. Given all the revelations about the NSA, the straw finally broke the camel's back, and we are now live with SSL. There may be some growing pains, seeing as though this will cost me a bit more on CPU, but I should be able to adjust the load with the growth.

If there are any oddities, or anything of concern that you notice regarding switching this blog to SSL, please let me know in the comments, email me, get me on IRC, or whatever. Thanks.

Sufficient Paranoia

With all the recent revelations about the NSA violating United States citizen's 4th amendment rights with their warrantless wiretapping, and now the news of Silk Road being taken down, and the NSA trying to crack Tor (it won't happen- I trust the mathematics), I thought now would be a good time to discuss the concept of healthy, or sufficient paranoia.

I am a system administrator by profession. I have certain levels of fears that make sure I don't make a mistake:

  • I assume that installing new software will break something.
  • I assume upgrading the BIOS will brick the hardware.
  • I assume the hardware firewall will fail.
  • I assume hard drives will fail.
  • I assume the janitors have installed a key logger on my machine.
  • I assume walking away from my machine, means my coworkers will want to hack my Gibson.
  • I assume backups aren't working

As such, I take the following measures:

  • I have a backup of the data.
  • I have a disaster recovery plan to take out the old drives, and put them into new hardware.
  • I have redundant software firewalls installed on all my boxes.
  • I have redundant drives, and I have a backup of the data on those drives.
  • I run visual checks to make sure no new hardware has been added.
  • I always lock my workstation. Always.
  • I test restoring data, even when I don't have to.

There's other paranoia that I have. These things keep me in check. They help me sleep at night. Once, I heard a story from my scout leader about always being prepared. He shared the story like this:

It was at the annual county fair, and farmers from far and near had come to exhibit their harvest and to engage hired hands for the next year. One prosperous farmer came across a husky lad and asked: "What can you do?" The answer: "I can sleep when the wind blows." With such an answer the farmer turned and started to walk away, perturbed at the impudence of the man. But he turned again and asked: What did you say?" "I can sleep when the wind blows." "Well," said the farmer, "I don't know what that means, but I'm going to hire you anyway."

Winter came, followed by the usual spring, and the new hired hand didn't show any particular signs of extra work, but filled the duties of his work as most others would have done. And then one night in early summer the farmer noticed a strong wind rising. He dashed to the hired hand's quarters to arouse him to see that all the stock was properly cared for. There he found the hired hand asleep. He was about to awaken him, when he remembered the boy's strange statement. He went to his barns and there found all his animals in their places, and the doors and windows securely locked. He found the haystack had been crisscrossed with heavy wires, anticipating such a night, and that it would weather the storm.

Then the farmer knew what his hired man meant when he gave as his only qualification, "I can sleep when the wind blows."

I'm sure you've heard similar versions of this story. It has a lot of applications, including sufficient paranoia. The hired assistant kept realized the fear of lost of dead animals. He understood the fear of haystacks blown away with the wind. He knew what flooded barns and stables meant. He had sufficient paranoia, that in the worst of cases, he was prepared. However, not only was he sufficiently paranoid, but his paranoia likely lead to a behavior that most would consider odd.

The same can be said for security. I cryptographically sign all of my emails with my GPG key. I have been doing this since 2005, and I don't see any need to stop now. I've been asked about it many times. My response is always the same: "If you receive an unsigned email from me, then you should question the authenticity of the sender." Of course, it's their duty to verify the signature is valid. I've done my duty by signing them. And what happens when I appear in front of a judge in a court of law, and an email claiming to be sent from me is called into question? I can show with unwavering consistency that I have signed every email since 2005, which would then call into doubt the email in question, if that email is not cryptographically signed. Innocent until proven guilty.

I recently did an audit on all my account passwords. Not only is every account a different, truly random password, but I make sure that the entropy of every passwords exceeds 120 bits, where possible. Further, every account uses a password I know from my password card, as well as a long password I don't know from my Yubikey. So, I have two-factor authentication for every account, where possible. Given what I know about password cracking, this is good security, for very little cost. Not even my wife knows my passwords (which could prove to be difficult if I die).

I even have a different SSH key for every computer, and each SSH key is encrypted with a different password. I encrypt the SSH key with SSL, instead of the default encryption OpenSSH uses, to slow down offline passphrase attacks.

I don't recycle my shredded paper. Instead, I use it as kindling for my parents fireplace during the winter. I've also used it as mulch for our small box garden in the back yard, and our flower garden in the front. If it gets thrown away, I do it in sections- thoroughly mix the shredded paper, and throw away 1/10th of it one month. Then 1/10th the next month, at a different location. Et cetera. I'm paranoid that someone at the land fill is going through the garbage, looking for freebies. The last thing I want is my bank account number found (although improbable given my super awesome paper shredder).

I use Ghostery and AdBlock as necessary extensions for my browsers. When I don't have control of the computer, or the network, I use a browser on a USB thumb drive, in private browsing mode, connected to either an SSH or Tor proxy, including proxying DNS, and I never view Flash media.

Whenever I walk away from my computer, I make sure I lock the screen, pull my Yubikey, and put it in my wallet. Yes, it's trivial for someone to take the contents of the key while I am away, and it's just as trivial for me to take my Yubikey with me when I leave the keyboard.

I run an encrypted filesystem on my computers and servers. For sensitive data, I keep those GPG-encrypted in an eCrypftFS mount, which is also two-factor password protected. I can give law enforcement what I know, without needing to tell them about what I have, without compromising the system.

There are many other things I do, such as not divulging private details of personal things over SMS or IM, or sometimes, even over voice. I always lock my doors, even if I'm occupying the space. When in crowded environments, I put my wallet in my front pocket, under my hand. I could go on and on.

I do these things, because I have what I call "sufficient paranoia". It's just good security practice. Does it make me look crazy, even to my coworkers? Of course. Am I worried that the NSA has bugged my house, or my wife is a secret spy? No. I maintain balance.

We don't know what the future will bring. We don't know if tomorrow, it can be proved that P = NP, and all cryptograhpy falls apart as a result. We don't know the full extent of the NSA illegal spying. We don't know when Google is breached, and all accounts are sold to the highest bidder. We can't control these things. What we can control is how to be prepared for them. We can control a certain level of paranoia that keeps everything in check.

Sufficient paranoia.

Identification Versus Authentication

Recently, Apple announced and released the iPhone 5S. Part of the hardware specifications on the phone is a new fingerprint scanner, coupled with their TouchID software. Immediately upon the announcement, I wondered how they would utilize the fingerprint. It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that they are using your fingerprint incorrectly.

To understand how, we first need to understand the difference between "identification" and "authentication". Your fingerprint should be used as an identifying token, and not an authenticating one. Unfortunately, most fingerprint scanner vendors don't follow this advice. In other words, when you scan your fingerprint, the software should identify you from a list of users. After identifying who you are, you then provide the token to authenticate that you are indeed the correct person. This is generally how usernames and passwords work. You provide a username to the login form to claim that you are indeed the correct person. Then you provide a password or some other token to prove that is the case. Your figerprint should be used as the identifying token, such as a username in a login form, rather than as the authenicating token, such as a password.

Why? Here's some concerns with using fingerprints as authentication tokens:

  • Fingerprints can't be changed easily. Once someone has compromised your account by lifting your print off of a surface, you can't just "change your fingerprint".
  • Fingerprints are easy low-hanging fruit for Big Brother. If faced in a situation where you must turn over your authentication tokens, it's much easier for Big Brother to get your fingerprint, than it is to get a long password.
  • Lifting fingerprints is easily hacked. They provide very little security. Further, your fingerprints are everywhere, especially on your phone. If you lost your iPhone 5S, or it's stolen, the bad guys now have your fingerprints.

To illustrate how easy that last bullet point is, the Chaos Computer Club posted a YouTube video on breaking the TouchID software with little difficulty. And they're hardly the first. Over, and over, and over again, fingerprint scanners are quickly broken. While the tech is certainly cool, it's hardly secure.

While I like to throw jabs and punches an Apple, Inc., I expected much more from them. This seems like such a n00b mistake, it's almost hard to take seriously. A fingerprint scanner on a phone would make sense where multiple users could use the device, independent of each other, such as the release of Android 4.2, where multiuser support was added. Scanning your finger would identify you to the device, and present a password, pattern or PIN entry dialog, asking you to authenticate. That's appropriate use of a fingerprint scanner.

RIP Microsoft Tag

So yesterday, Microsoft announced that it is ending support for Tag, (on Facebook?) it's proprietary barcode format. To me, this doesn't come as a major surprise. Here's why:

  1. Tag arrived very late in the game, after QR Codes were pretty much establishing themselves as "the norm".
  2. Tag is a proprietary barcode. No way around it.
  3. Tag is a specific implementation of HCCB, and the specification for HCCB was never released to developers.
  4. Tag requires a data connection to retrieve the data out of the barcode.
  5. Tag requires a Microsoft account to create Tags.
  6. Tag requires a commercial non-free license for using Tags in a commercial space, or for selling products as a result of scanning the Tag.
  7. Tags can only be scanned using Microsoft Tag readers.
  8. Generating a Tag barcode means accepting its Terms of Service. A barcode has a TOS.

Just over a year ago, I gave credit where credit is due. Microsoft had something awesome with HCCB. It's technically superior to most 2D barcodes in many ways. But, Microsoft never made that specification to create HCCB codes available. In fact, I even had an email discussion with a Microsoft engineer regarding HCCB and Tag:

From: Aaron Toponce
To: Microsoft Tag Support
Subject: HCCB Specification

I'm familiar with Microsoft Tag, an HCCB implementation, but I'm interested in the specifications for HCCB. Specifically, I am interested in generating HCCB codes that are not Microsoft Tag. I have an account on, but don't see any way to generate HCCB codes outside of Microsoft Tags.

Any help would be great.

From: Microsoft Tag Support
To: Aaron Toponce
Subject: Re: HCCB Specification

Hello Aaron,

Thank you for contacting Microsoft Tag Support. Could you please elaborate the issue as we are not able to understand the below request. High Capacity Color Barcode (HCCB) is the name coined by Microsoft for its technology of encoding data in a 2D barcode using clusters of colored triangles instead of the square pixels. Microsoft Tag is an implementation of HCCB using 4 colors in a 5 x 10 grid. Apart from Tag barcode you can also create QR code and NFC URL using Microsoft Tag Manager.

For more information

Attached is the document on specification of Tag, hope this will help you.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please let us know.

Thank you for your feedback and your interest in Microsoft Tag.

From: Aaron Toponce
To: Microsoft Tag Support
Subject: Re: HCCB Specification

I'm not interested in Tag. I'm only interested in the High Capacity Color Barcode specification, that Tag uses. For example, how do I create offline HCCB codes? How do I implement digital signatures? How do I implement error correction? I would be interested in developing a Python library to create and decode HCCB codes.

I am already familiar with HCCB, what it is, how it works, and some of the features. I want to develop libraries for creating and decoding them. But I can't seem to find any APIs, libraries or documentation in encoding and decoding HCCB.

I never got a followup reply. Basically, I'm allowed to create Tags, but not HCCB codes. I'm sure I'm not the only developer denied access to HCCB. I've thoroughly scanned the Internet looking for anything regarding building HCCB barcodes. It just doesn't exist. Plenty of sites detailing how to create a Microsoft account to create Tags, but nothing for standard offline HCCB codes.

So, citing the reasons above it's no surprise to me that Tag failed. Maybe Microsoft will finally release the specifications of HCCB to the market, so people can create their own offline HCCB codes, and develop apps for scanning, encoding and decoding them. Time will tell, and I'm not losing any sleep over it.

RIP Tag.

The NSA and Number Stations- An Historical Perspective

With all the latest news about PRISM and the United States government violating citizen's 4th amendment rights, I figured I would throw in a blog post about it. However, I'm not going to add anything really new about how to subvert the warantless government spying. Instead, I figured I would throw in an historical perspective on how some avoid being spied on.

The One-time Pad

In order to understand this post, we first need to understand the One-time Pad, or OTP for short. The OTP is a mathematically unbreakable encryption algorithm, which uses a unique and different random key for every message sent. The OTP must be the same length as the message being sent, or longer. The plaintext is then XOR'd with the OTP to create the ciphertext. The recipient on the other end has a copy of the OTP, which is used to XOR the ciphertext, and get back to the original plaintext. The system is extremely elegant, but it's not without its flaws.

First, the OTP must be communicated securely with the recipient. One argument against the OTP is if you can communicate your key securely, then why not just communicate the message in that manner? That's a fine question, except it misses one critical point: more than one OTP can be communicated at first meeting. The recipient might have 20 or 50 OTPs in their possession, knowing the order in which they are used.

Second, if the same OTP key is used for two or more messages, and those messages are intercepted, they can be used to derive the private key! It is exceptionally critical that every message be encrypted with its own unique and random OTP. This is not trivial.

One major advantage of the OTP is the lack of incriminating evidence. OTPs have been found on rice paper, bars of soap, microfilm, or hidden in plain sight, such as using words from a book or a crossword puzzle. One the key has been used, it can be destroyed with minimal effort. Compared to destroying data on a computer, which is much more difficult, than say, burning the rice paper, or shuffling a deck of cards.

Field Agents

Enter spies and field agents. Suppose a government wishes to communicate with a field agent in a remote country. The message they wish to send is "ATTACK AT DAWN". How do you get this message delivered to your agent securely and anonymously? More importantly, how can your field agent intercept the message without raising suspicion, or without any incriminating evidence against them?

This turns out to be a difficult problem to solve. If you meet at a specific location at a specific time, how do you communicate it without raising suspicion? Maybe you mail a package or envelope to your agent, but then how do you know it won't be intercepted and examined? Many totalitarian states, such as North Korea, examine all inbound and outbound mail.

Numbers Stations

Enter radio. First, in developed countries, just about everyone owns a radio. You can purchase them just about everywhere, and carrying one around, or having one in your room, is not incriminating enough to convict you as a spy. Second, your field agent already has a set of OTPs on hand. So, transmitting the encrypted message over the air isn't a problem for interception.

So, roughly around the time of World War 2, governments started communicating with field agents on the radio. Now, this can neither be confirmed, nor denied, but numbers stations have been on the air for decades. Numbers stations are illegal transmissions, usually on the edges of short wave bands. Typically, this is referred to as "pirate radio", and governments are very effective at finding them. Most of these numbers stations have very rigid schedules; so rigid, you could set your watch to them. If they are not transmitted by government agencies, they would be shut down fast. Given the length they've been on the air, the sheer number of them, and their rigid schedules, tells us that government agencies are the best bet for the source of the transmission.

So, what does a numbers station sound like? Typically, most of them have some sort of "header" transmission, before getting into the "body" of the encrypted text. This header could be a series of digits repeated over and over, a musical melody, a sequence of tones, or nothing. Then the body is delivered. Typically, it's given in sets of 5 numbers, which is common in cryptography circles. Something like "51237 65500 81734", etc. The transmissions are usually short, roughly 3-5 minutes in length. Some transmissions will end with a "footer", like "000 000" or "end transmission" for the agent to identify the transmission is over. There is never any sort of station identification. They are one-way anonymous transmissions. Almost always, the voice reading the numbers is computer generated. They can be transmitted in many different languages: Spanish, English, German, Chinese, etc. And if that's not enough, some are verbally spoken, some in Morse code, some digital.

Want to hear what one sounds like? Here is a transmission from the "Lincolnshire Poacher" (Wikipedia page, found in the article). Some numbers stations have been given names by their enthusiasts, who listen and record them frequently. In this case, named after an English folk-song, because it is played as the header to every transmission. However, the station didn't exist in England. Rather, it was stationed in Cyprus.

Don't think that sounds eerie enough? There is a German numbers station called the "Swedish Rhapsody", where it starts by ringing church bells for the header. Then, a female child voice reads the numbers. You swear this could be something out of a horror movie.

Not all stations stay on the air either. Many disappear over time, some quickly, some after many years. The Licolnshire Poacher numbers station was on the air for about 20 years, before it went silent. Numbers stations also don't always have rigid schedules. Some will just appear seemingly out of nowhere, and never come back online. And because these are on shortwave bands, they can travel hundreds and thousands of miles, so your field agent could literally be anywhere in the world. So long as he has his radio with him, a decent antenna, and a clear sky overhead, he'll pick it up.


So, where does that bring us? Well, with the NSA spying us, numbers stations sound like an attractive alternative to phone and email conversations. Now, as already mentioned, numbers stations are illegal, especially in the United States. So, it doesn't seem like an attractive alternative, even if they are still on the air.

However, the OTP can be an effective and practical way to send messages securely. I mentioned almost a year ago, of a way to create a USB hard drive with a OTP on the drive. Both the sender and the recipient have an exact copy of the drive, along with a software utility necessary for encrypting and decrypting the data, as well as destroying the bits used for the OTP. Once the bits on the drives are all used up, the sender and the recipient meet to rebuild the OTP on the drive.

OpenSSH Keys and The Drunken Bishop

Have you ever wondered what the "randomart" or "visual fingerprint" is all about when creating OpenSSH keys or connecting to OpenSSH servers? Surely, you've seen them. When generating a key on OpenSSH version 5.1 or later, you will see something like this:

$ ssh-keygen -f test-rsa
Generating public/private rsa key pair.
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase): 
Enter same passphrase again: 
Your identification has been saved in test-rsa.
Your public key has been saved in
The key fingerprint is:
18:ff:18:d7:f4:a6:d8:ce:dd:d4:07:0e:e2:c5:f8:45 aaron@kratos
The key's randomart image is:
+--[ RSA 2048]----+
|                 |
|                 |
|      .     . E  |
|       +   = o   |
|      . S + = =  |
|         * * * ..|
|        . + + . +|
|           o . o.|
|            o . .|

I'm sure you've noticed this, and probably thought, "What's the point?" or "What's the algorithm in generating the visual art?" Well, I'm going to answer those questions for you in this post.

This post is an explanation of the algorithm as explained by Dirk Loss, Tobias Limmer, and Alexander von Gernler in their PDF "The drunken bishop: An analysis of the OpenSSH fingerprint visualization algorithm". You can find their PDF at‎. In the event that link is no longer available, I've archived the PDF at


Bishop Peter finds himself in the middle of an ambient atrium. There are walls on all four sides and apparently there is no exit. The floor is paved with square tiles, strictly alternating between black and white. His head heavily aching—probably from too much wine he had before—he starts wandering around randomly. Well, to be exact, he only makes diagonal steps—just like a bishop on a chess board. When he hits a wall, he moves to the side, which takes him from the black tiles to the white tiles (or vice versa). And after each move, he places a coin on the floor, to remember that he has been there before. After 64 steps, just when no coins are left, Peter suddenly wakes up. What a strange dream!

When creating OpenSSH key pairs, or when connecting to an OpenSSH server, you are presented with the fingerprint of the keypair. It may look something like this:

$ ssh
The authenticity of host ' (' can't be established.
RSA key fingerprint is d4:d3:fd:ca:c4:d3:e9:94:97:cc:52:21:3b:e4:ba:e9.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)?

At this point, as a responsible citizen of the community, you call up the system administrator of the host "", and verify that the fingerprint you are being presented with is the same fingerprint he has on the server for the RSA key. If the fingerprints match, you type "yes", and continue the connection. If the fingerprints do not match, you suspect a man-in-the-middle attack, and type "no". If the server is a server under your control, then rather than calling up the system administrator for that domain, you physically go to the box, pull up a console, and print the server's RSA fingerprint.

In either case, verifying a 32-character hexadecimal string is cumbersome. If we could have a better visual on the fingerprint, it might be easier to verify that we've connected to the right server. This is where the "randomart" comes from. Now, when connecting to the server, I can be presented with something like this:

The authenticity of host ' (' can't be established.
RSA key fingerprint is d4:d3:fd:ca:c4:d3:e9:94:97:cc:52:21:3b:e4:ba:e9.
+--[ RSA 2048]----+
|             o . |
|         . .o.o .|
|        . o .+.. |
|       .   ...=o+|
|        S  . .+B+|
|            oo+o.|
|           o  o. |
|          .      |
|           E     |
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)?

Because I have a visual representation of the server's fingerprint, it will be easier for me to verify that I am connecting to the correct server. Further, after connecting to the server many times, the visual fingerprint will become familiar. So, upon connection, when the visual fingerprint is displayed, I can think "yes, that is the same picture I always see, this must be my server". If a man-in-the-middle attack is in progress, a different visual fingerprint will probably be displayed, at which point I can avoid connecting, because I have noticed that the picture changed.

The picture is created by applying an algorithm to the fingerprint, such that different fingerprints should display different pictures. Turns out, there can be some visual collisions that I'll lightly address at the end of this post. However, this visual display should work in "most cases", and cause you to start verifying fingerprints of OpenSSH keys.

The Board
Because the bishop finds himself in a room, with no exits, and only walls, we need to create a visually square room on the terminal. This is done by creating a room with 9 rows and 17 columns, creating a total of 153 total squares the bishop can travel. The bishop must start in the exact center of the room, thus the reason for odd-numbered rows and columns.

Our board setup then looks like this, where "S" is the starting location of the drunk bishop:

  +-----------------+x (column)
 0|                 |
 1|                 |
 2|                 |
 3|                 |
 4|        S        |
 5|                 |
 6|                 |
 7|                 |
 8|                 |

Each square on the board can be thought as a numerical position from Cartesian coordinates. As mentioned, there are 153 squares on the board, so each square gets a numerical value through the equation "p = x + 17y". So, p=0, for (0,0); p=76 for (8,4), the starting location of our bishop; and p=152, for (16,8), the lower right-hand corner of the board. Having a unique numerical value for each position on the board will allow us to do some simple math when the bishop begins his random walk.

The Movement
In order to define movement, we need to understand the fingerprint that is produced from an OpenSSH key. An OpenSSH fingerprint is an MD5 checksum. As such, it has a 16-byte output. An example fingerprint could be "d4:d3:fd:ca:c4:d3:e9:94:97:cc:52:21:3b:e4:ba:e9".

Because the bishop can only move one of four valid ways, we can represent this in binary.

  • "00" means our bishop takes one move diagonally to the north-west.
  • "01" means our bishop takes one move diagonally to the north-east.
  • "10" means our bishop takes one move diagonally to the south-west.
  • "11" means our bishop takes one move diagonally to the south-east.

With the bishop in the center of the room, his first move will take him off square 76. After his first move, his new position will be as follows:

  • "00" will place him on square 58, a difference of -18.
  • "01" will place him on square 60, a difference of -16.
  • "10" will place him on square 92, a difference of +16.
  • "11" will place him on square 94, a difference of +18.

We must now convert our hexadecimal string to binary, so we can begin making movements based on our key. Our key:


would be converted to


When reading the binary, we read each binary word (8-bits) from left-to-right, but we read each bit-pair in each word right-to-left (little endian). Thus our bishop's first 16 moves would be:

00 01 01 11 00 01 01 11 01 11 11 11 10 10 00 11

Or, you could think of it in terms of steps, if looking at the binary directly:


Board Coverage
All is well and good if our drunk bishop remains in the center of the room, but what happens when he slams into the wall, or walks himself into a corner? We need to take into account these situations, and how to handle them in our algorithm. First, let us define every square on the board:

|aTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTb|   a = NW corner
|cBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBd|   M = Middle pos.

Now, let us define every move for every square on the board:

Pos Bits Heading Adjusted Offset
a 00 NW No Move 0
01 NE E +1
10 SW S +17
11 SE SE +18
b 00 NW W -1
01 NE No Move 0
10 SW SW +16
11 SE S +17
c 00 NW N -17
01 NE NE -16
10 SW No Move 0
11 SE E +1
d 00 NW NW -18
01 NE N -17
10 SW W -1
11 SE No Move 0
T 00 NW W -1
01 NE E +1
10 SW SW +16
11 SE SE +18
B 00 NW NW -18
01 NE NE -16
10 SW W -1
11 SE E +1
R 00 NW NW -18
01 NE N -17
10 SW SW +16
11 SE S +17
L 00 NW N -17
01 NE NE -16
10 SW S +17
11 SE SE +18
M 00 NW NW -18
01 NE NE -16
10 SW SW +16
11 SE SE +18

How much of the board will our bishop walk? Well, with our fingerprints having a 16-byte output, that means there are 64 total moves the bishop can walk. As such, the most board a bishop could cover, is if each square was only visited once. Thus 65/153 ~= 42.48%, which is less than half of the board.

Position Values
Remember that our bishop is making a random walk around the room, dropping coins on every square he's visited. If he's visited a square in the room more than once, we need a way to represent that in the art. As such, we will use a different ASCII character as the count increases.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, I think the OpenSSH developers picked the wrong characters. They mention in their PDF that the intention of the characters they picked, was to increase the density of the characters as the visitation count to a square increases. Personally, I don't think these developers have spent much time working on ASCII art. Had I been on the development team, I would have picked a different set. However, here is the set they picked for each count:

Freq 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14
Char . o + = * B O X @ % & # / ^ S E

The special characters "S" and "E" are to identify the starting and ending location of the bishop respectively.

Additional Thoughts
Now that you know how the random art is generated for a given key, you can begin to ask yourself some questions:

  • When addressing picture collisions, how many fingerprints produce the same picture (same values for all positions)?
  • How many fingerprints produce the same shape (same visited squares with different values)?
  • How many different visualizations can the algorithm produce?
  • Can a fingerprint be derived by looking only at the random art?
  • How many different visualizations can a person easily distinguish?
  • What happens to the visualizations when changing the board size, either smaller or larger?
  • What visualizations can be produced with different chess pieces? How would the rules change?
  • What visualizations can be produced if the board were a torus (like Pac-man)?
  • Could this be extended to other fingerprints, such as OpenPGP keys? If so, could it simplify verifying keys at keysigning parties (and as a result, speed them up)?

Even though this post discussed the algorithm in generating the random art, it did not address the security models of those visualizations. There are many questions that need answers. Obviously, there are collisions. So, how many collisions are there? Can it be discovered to predict the number of visual collisions based on the cryptographic hash, and size of the board? Does this weaken security when verifying OpenSSH keys, and if so, how?

These questions, and many others, should be addressed. But, for the time being, it seems to be working "well enough", and most people using OpenSSH probably only ever see the visualization when creating their own private and public key pair. You can enable it for every OpenSSH server you connect to, by setting "VisualHostKey yes" in your ssh_config(5).

In the meantime, I'll be working on a Python implementation for this on OpenPGP keys. It will use a larger board (11x19), and a different set of characters for the output, but the algorithm will remain the same. I'm interested to see if this can improve verifying people have the right OpenPGP key, by just checking the ASCII art, rather than reading out a 20-byte random string using the NATO alphabet. Keep an eye on

Strengthen Your Private Encrypted SSH Keys

Recently, on Hacker News, a post came through about improving the security of your encrypted private OpenSSH keys. I want to re-blog that post here (I'm actually jealous he blogged it first), in my own words, and provide a script at the end that will automate the process for you.

First off, Martin goes into great detail about the storage format of your unencrypted private OpenSSH keys. The unencrypted key is stored in a format known as Abstract Syntax Notation One (ASN.1) (for you web nerds, it's similar in function to JSON). However, when you encrypt the key with your passphrase, it is no longer valid ASN.1. So, Martin then takes you through the process of how the key is encrypted. The big take-away from that introduction is the following, that by default:

  • Encrypted OpenSSH keys use MD5- a horribly broken cryptographic hash.
  • OpenSSH keys are encrypted with AES-128-CBC, which is fast, fast, fast.

It would be nice if our OpenSSH keys used a stronger cryptographic hash like SHA1, SHA2 or SHA3 in the encryption process, rather than MD5. Further, it would be nice if we could cause attackers who get our private encrypted OpenSSH keys to expend more computing resources when trying to brute force our passphrase. So, rather than using the speedy AES algorithm, how about 3DES or Blowfish?

This is where PKCS#8 comes into play. "PKCS" stands for "Public-key cryptography standards". There are currently 15 standards, with 2 withdrawn and 2 under development. Standard #8 defines how private key certificates are to be handled, both in unencrypted and encrypted form. Because OpenSSH use public key cryptography, and private keys are stored, it would be nice if it adhered to the standard. Turns out, it does. From the ssh-keygen(1) man page:

     -m key_format
             Specify a key format for the -i (import) or -e (export) conver‐
             sion options.  The supported key formats are: “RFC4716” (RFC
             4716/SSH2 public or private key), “PKCS8” (PEM PKCS8 public key)
             or “PEM” (PEM public key).  The default conversion format is

As mentioned, the supported key formats are RFC4716, PKCS8 and PEM. Seeing as though PKCS#8 is supported, it seems like we can take advantage of it in OpenSSH. So, the question then comes, what does PKCS#8 offer me in terms of security that I don't already have? Well, Martin answers this question in his post as well. Turns out, there are 2 versions of PKCS#8 that we need to address:

  • The version 1 option specifies a PKCS#5 v1.5 or PKCS#12 algorithm to use. These algorithms only offer 56-bits of protection, since they both use DES.
  • The version 2 option specifies that PKCS#5 v2.0 algorithms are used which can use any encryption algorithm such as 168 bit triple DES or 128 bit RC2.

As I mentioned earlier, we want SHA1 (or better) and 3DES (or slower). Turns out, the OpenSSL implementation of PKCS#8 version 2 uses the following algorithms:

  • PBE-SHA1-RC4-128
  • PBE-SHA1-RC4-40
  • PBE-SHA1-RC2-128
  • PBE-SHA1-RC2-40

PBE-SHA1-3DES is our target. So, the only question remaining, is can we convert our private OpenSSH keys to this format? If so, how? Well, because OpenSSH relies heavily on OpenSSL, we can use the openssl(1) utility to make the conversion to the new format, and due to the ssh-keygen(1) manpage quoted above, we know OpenSSH supports the PKCS#8 format for our private keys, so we should be good.

Before we go further though, why 3DES? Why not stick with the default AES? DES is slow, slow, slow. 3DES is DES chained together 3 times. Compared to AES, it's a snail racing a hare. With 3DES, the data is encrypted with a first 56-bit DES key, then encrypted with a second 56-bit DES key, the finally encrypted with a third 56-bit DES key. The result is an output that has 168-bits of security. There are no known practical attacks against 3DES, and NIST considers it secure through 2030. It's certainly appropriate to use as an encrypted storage for our private OpenSSH keys.

To convert our private key, all we need to do is rename it, run openssl(1) on the keys, then test. Here are the steps:

$ mv ~/.ssh/id_rsa{,.old}
$ umask 0077
$ openssl pkcs8 -topk8 -v2 des3 -in ~/.ssh/id_rsa.old -out ~/.ssh/id_rsa     # dsa and ecdsa are also supported

Now login to a remote OpenSSH server where the public portion of that key is installed, and see if it works. If so, remove the old key. To simplify the process, I created a script where you provide your private OpenSSH key as an argument, and it does the conversion for you. You can find that script at

What's the point? Basically, you should think of it the following way:

  • We're using SHA1 rather than MD5 as part of the encryption process.
  • By using 3DES rather than AES, we've slowed down brute force attacks to a crawl. This should buy us 2-3 extra characters of entropy in our passphrase.
  • Using PKCS#8 gives us the flexibility to use other algorithms in the future, as old ones are replaced.

I agree with Martin that it's a shame OpenSSH isn't using this by default. Why stick with the original OpenSSH storage format? Compatibility isn't a concern, as the support relies solely on the client, not the server. Because every client should have a different keypair installed, there is no worry about new versus old client. Extra security is purchased through the use of SHA1 and 3DES. Computing time to create the keys was trivial, and the performance difference when using them is not noticeable compared to the traditional format. Of course, if your passphrase protecting your keys is strong, with lots and lots of entropy, then an attacker will be foiled with a brute force attack anyway. Regardless, why not make it more difficult for him by slowing him down?

Martin's post is a great read, and as such, I've converted my OpenSSH keys to the new format. I'd encourage you to do the same.

ZFS Administration, Appendix B- Using USB Drives

Table of Contents

Zpool Administration ZFS Administration Appendices
0. Install ZFS on Debian GNU/Linux 9. Copy-on-write A. Visualizing The ZFS Intent Log (ZIL)
1. VDEVs 10. Creating Filesystems B. Using USB Drives
2. RAIDZ 11. Compression and Deduplication C. Why You Should Use ECC RAM
3. The ZFS Intent Log (ZIL) 12. Snapshots and Clones D. The True Cost Of Deduplication
4. The Adjustable Replacement Cache (ARC) 13. Sending and Receiving Filesystems
5. Exporting and Importing Storage Pools 14. ZVOLs
6. Scrub and Resilver 15. iSCSI, NFS and Samba
7. Getting and Setting Properties 16. Getting and Setting Properties
8. Best Practices and Caveats 17. Best Practices and Caveats


This comes from the "why didn't I think of this before?!" department. I have lying around my home and office a ton of USB 2.0 thumb drives. I have six 16GB drives and eight 8GB drives. So, 14 drives in total. I have two hypervisors in a GlusterFS storage cluster, and I just happen to have two USB squids, that support 7 USB drives each. Perfect! So, why not put these to good use, and add them as L2ARC devices to my pool?


USB 2.0 is limited to 40 MBps per controller. A standard 7200 RPM hard drive can do 100 MBps. So, adding USB 2.0 drives to your pool as a cache is not going to increase the read bandwidth. At least not for large sequential reads. However, the seek latency of a NAND flash device is typically around 1 milliseconds to 3 milliseconds, whereas a platter HDD is around 12 milliseconds. If you do a lot of small random IO, like I do, then your USB drives will actually provide an overall performance increase that HDDs cannot provide.

Also, because there are no moving parts with NAND flash, this is less data that needs to be read from the HDD, which means less movement of the actuator arm, which means consuming less power in the long term. So, not only are they better for small random IO, they're saving you power at the same time! Yay for going green!

Lastly, the L2ARC should be read intensive. However, it can also be write intensive if you don't have enough room in your ARC and L2ARC to store all the requested data. If this is the case, you'll be constantly writing to your L2ARC. For USB drives without wear leveling algorithms, you'll chew through the drive quickly, and it will be dead in no time. If this is your case, you could store only metadata, rather than the actual data block pages in the L2ARC. You can do this with the following:

# zfs set secondarycache=metadata pool

You can set this pool-wide, or per dataset. In the case outlined above, I would certainly do it pool-wide, which each dataset will inherit by default.


To this up, it's rather straight forward. Just identify what the drives are, by using their unique identifiers, then add them to the pool:

# ls /dev/disk/by-id/usb-* | grep -v part

So, there are my seven drives that I outlined at the beginning of the post. So, to add them to the system as L2ARC drives, just run the following command:

# zpool add -f pool cache usb-Kingston_DataTraveler_G3_0014780D8CEBEBC145E80163-0:0\

Of course, these are the unique identifiers for my USB drives. Change them as necessary for your drives. Now that they are installed, are they filling up?

# zpool iostat -v
pool                                                          alloc   free   read  write   read  write
------------------------------------------------------------  -----  -----  -----  -----  -----  -----
pool                                                           695G  1.13T     21     59  53.6K   457K
  mirror                                                       349G   579G     10     28  25.2K   220K
    ata-ST1000DM003-9YN162_S1D1TM4J                               -      -      4     21  25.8K   267K
    ata-WDC_WD10EARS-00Y5B1_WD-WMAV50708780                       -      -      4     21  27.9K   267K
  mirror                                                       347G   581G     11     30  28.3K   237K
    ata-WDC_WD10EARS-00Y5B1_WD-WMAV50713154                       -      -      4     22  16.7K   238K
    ata-WDC_WD10EARS-00Y5B1_WD-WMAV50710024                       -      -      4     22  19.4K   238K
logs                                                              -      -      -      -      -      -
  mirror                                                         4K  1016M      0      0      0      0
    ata-OCZ-REVODRIVE_OCZ-33W9WE11E9X73Y41-part1                  -      -      0      0      0      0
    ata-OCZ-REVODRIVE_OCZ-X5RG0EIY7MN7676K-part1                  -      -      0      0      0      0
cache                                                             -      -      -      -      -      -
  ata-OCZ-REVODRIVE_OCZ-33W9WE11E9X73Y41-part2                52.2G    16M      4      2  51.3K   291K
  ata-OCZ-REVODRIVE_OCZ-X5RG0EIY7MN7676K-part2                52.2G    16M      4      2  52.6K   293K
  usb-Kingston_DataTraveler_G3_0014780D8CEBEBC145E80163-0:0    465M  6.80G      0      0    319  72.8K
  usb-Kingston_DataTraveler_SE9_00187D0F567FEC2090007621-0:0  1.02G  13.5G      0      0  1.58K  63.0K
  usb-Kingston_DataTraveler_SE9_00248121ABD5EC2070002E70-0:0  1.17G  13.4G      0      0    844  72.3K
  usb-Kingston_DataTraveler_SE9_00D0C9CE66A2EC2070002F04-0:0   990M  13.6G      0      0  1.02K  59.9K
  usb-_USB_DISK_Pro_070B2605FA99D033-0:0                      1.08G  6.36G      0      0  1.18K  67.0K
  usb-_USB_DISK_Pro_070B2607A029C562-0:0                      1.76G  5.68G      0      1  2.48K   109K
  usb-_USB_DISK_Pro_070B2608976BFD58-0:0                      1.20G  6.24G      0      0    530  38.8K
------------------------------------------------------------  -----  -----  -----  -----  -----  -----

Something important to understand here, is the drives do not need to be all the same size. You can mix and match as you have on hand. Of course, the more space you can give to the cache, the better off you'll be.


While this certainly isn't designed for speed, it can be used for lower random IO latencies, and it well reduce power in the datacenter. Further, what else are you going to do with those USB devices just lying around? Might as well put them to good use. Definitely seeing as though "the cloud" is making it trivial to get all of your files online.

Password Attacks, Part III- The Combination Attack


It's important to understand that most of the password attacks to offline databases where only hashes are stored are extensions of either the brute force attack or the dictionary attack, or a hybrid combination of both. There isn't really anything new outside of those two basic attacks. The combination attack is one such attack where we combine two dictionaries to create a much larger one. This larger one becomes the basis for creating passphrase dictionaries.

Combination Attack

Suppose we have two (very small) dictionaries. The first dictionary is a list of sizes while the second dictionary is a list of animals:

Dictionary 1:


Dictionary 2:


In order to combine these two dictionaries, we use a standard cross product between the two dictionaries. This means that there will be a total list of 25 words in our combined dictionary:


We have begun to assemble some crude rudimentary phrases. They may not make a lot of sense, but building that dictionary was cheap. I could create a script, similar to to the following, to have it build me that list:

while read A; do
    while read B; do
        echo "${A}${B}"
    done < /tmp/dict2.txt
done < /tmp/dict1.txt > /tmp/comb-dict.txt

Personal Attack Building

Let's extend the combination attack a bit to target personal data. Suppose dictionary one is a list of male names and dictionary two is a list of four-digit years, starting from year 0 through year 2013. We can then create a combined dictionary that has a list of males and their birth (or death) years. For those passwords that don't pass simple dictionary attacks, maybe these hashes are passwords of when their kid was born, or when their dad died. I've shoulder surfed a number of different people, and watched as they type in their password, and you would be surprised how many passwords meet this exact criteria. Something like "Christian1995".

Now that I have you thinking, it should be obvious now that we can create all sorts of personalized dictionaries. How about a list of male names, a list of female names, a list of surnames, and a list of dates in MMDDYY format? Or how about a list of cities, states, universities, sports teams? Lists of "last 4 digits of your SSN", fully qualified domain names of popular websites, and common patterns on keyboards, such as "qwert", "asdf" and "zxcv", or "741852963" (I've seen this hundreds of times, where people just swipe their finger down their 10-key).

Even though the success rate of getting a personalized password out of one of these dictionaries might be low compared to the common dictionary attack, it's still far more efficient than the brute force, and it's so trivial to make these dictionaries, that I could have one server continuing to create combination dictionaries, while another works on the dictionary lists that are produced.

Extending the Attack

There are always sites that are forcing numbers on you, as well as upper case characters, and non-alphanumeric characters. Believe it or not, but just adding a "0" or a "1" at the beginning and end of these dictionaries can greatly improve my chances of discovering your password. Or, even just adding an exclamation point at the beginning or end might be all that's needed to extend a standard dictionary.

However, we can get a bit more creative with little cost. Rather than just concatenating the words together, we can insert the dash "-" and the underscore "_" between our concatenated words. These are common characters to use when forced to use non-alphanumeric characters in passwords that must be 8 characters or longer. Passwords such as "i-love-you", or "Alice_Bob" are common ways to satisfy the requirement, as well as keeping the password easy to remember. And, of course, we can append "!" or "0" to our password dictionary for the numerical requirement.

According to Wikipedia, the Oxford English Standard Dictionary, which is the Go To for all things English definitions, is the following size:

As of 30 November 2005, the Oxford English Dictionary contained approximately 301,100 main entries.

This is smaller than what most Unix-like operating systems will ship, but it's targeted enough, that most people if relying on dictionary words for their passwords, won't deviate much from. So, creating a full three-word passphrase dictionary would consist of only 90,661,210,000 entries. Assuming the average word length is 9 characters long, plus the newline character, this would be about a 900 GB file. Certainly nothing to laugh at, but with compression, we should be able to get this down do about 250 GB, give or take. Now let's generate two or three of those files with various combinations of word separation or prepending/appending numbers or non-alphanumeric characters, and we have a great attack vector starting point.

It's important to note that these files only need to be generated once, then stored for long-term use. The cost of generating these files initially will be high, of course. For only $11,000 USD, you can purchase a Backblaze storage pod with 180 TB of raw disk to store these behemoth files, and many combinations of them. It may be a large initial expense, but the potential value of a cracked password may be worth it in the end- something many attackers and their parent companies might just consider. Further, you may even find some of these dictionaries online.


We must admit, that if we have gotten to this point in the game, we are getting desperate for the password. This attack is certainly more effective than the brute force, and it won't take us long to exhaust these combined dictionaries. However, the rate at which we pull passwords out of them will certainly be much smaller than our success for finding 70% of the passwords with a plain dictionary. That doesn't mean it's not worth it. Even if we find only 10% of the passwords out of our hashed database, that's great success for the effort put into it.

ZFS Administration, Appendix A- Visualizing The ZFS Intent LOG (ZIL)

Table of Contents

Zpool Administration ZFS Administration Appendices
0. Install ZFS on Debian GNU/Linux 9. Copy-on-write A. Visualizing The ZFS Intent Log (ZIL)
1. VDEVs 10. Creating Filesystems B. Using USB Drives
2. RAIDZ 11. Compression and Deduplication C. Why You Should Use ECC RAM
3. The ZFS Intent Log (ZIL) 12. Snapshots and Clones D. The True Cost Of Deduplication
4. The Adjustable Replacement Cache (ARC) 13. Sending and Receiving Filesystems
5. Exporting and Importing Storage Pools 14. ZVOLs
6. Scrub and Resilver 15. iSCSI, NFS and Samba
7. Getting and Setting Properties 16. Getting and Setting Properties
8. Best Practices and Caveats 17. Best Practices and Caveats


While taking a walk around the city with the rest of the system administration team at work today (we have our daily "admin walk"), a discussion came up about asynchronous writes and the contents of the ZFS Intent Log. Previously, as shown in the Table of Contents, I blogged about the ZIL in great length. However, I didn't really discuss what the contents of the ZIL were, and to be honest, I didn't fully understand it myself. Thanks to Andrew Kuhnhausen, this was clarified. So, based on the discussion we had during our walk, as well as some pretty graphs on the whiteboard, I'll give you the breakdown here.

Let's start at the beginning. ZFS behaves more like an ACID compliant RDBMS than a traditional filesystem. Its writes are transactions, meaning there are no partial writes, and they are fully atomic, meaning you get all or nothing. This is true whether the write is synchronous or asynchronous. So, best case is you have all of your data. Worst case is you missed the last transactional write, and your data is 5 seconds old (by default). So, let's look at those too cases- the synchronous write and the asynchronous write. With synchronous, we'll consider the write both with and without a separate logging device (SLOG).

The ZIL Function

The primary, and only function of the ZIL is to replay lost transactions in the event of a failure. When a power outage, crash, or other catastrophic failure occurs, pending transactions in RAM may have not been committed to slow platter disk. So, when the system recovers, the ZFS will notice the missing transactions. At this point, the ZIL is read to replay those transactions, and commit the data to stable storage. While the system is up and running, the ZIL is never read. It is only written to. You can verify this by doing the following (assuming you have SLOG in your system). Pull up two terminals. In one terminal, run an IOZone benchmark. Do something like the following:

$ iozone -ao

This will run a whole series of tests to see how your disks perform. While this benchmark is running, in the other terminal, as root, run the following command:

# zpool iostat -v 1

This will clearly show you that when the ZIL resides on a SLOG, the SLOG devices are only written to. You never see any numbers in the read columns. This is becaus the ZIL is never read, unless the need to replay transactions from a crash are necessary. Here is one of those seconds illustrating the write:

                                                            capacity     operations    bandwidth
pool                                                     alloc   free   read  write   read  write
-------------------------------------------------------  -----  -----  -----  -----  -----  -----
pool                                                     87.7G   126G      0    155      0   601K
  mirror                                                 87.7G   126G      0    138      0   397K
    scsi-SATA_WDC_WD2500AAKX-_WD-WCAYU9421741-part5          -      -      0     69      0   727K
    scsi-SATA_WDC_WD2500AAKX-_WD-WCAYU9755779-part5          -      -      0     68      0   727K
logs                                                         -      -      -      -      -      -
  mirror                                                 2.43M   478M      0      8      0   108K
    scsi-SATA_OCZ-REVODRIVE_XOCZ-6G9S9B5XDR534931-part1      -      -      0      8      0   108K
    scsi-SATA_OCZ-REVODRIVE_XOCZ-THM0SU3H89T5XGR1-part1      -      -      0      8      0   108K
  mirror                                                 2.57M   477M      0      7      0  95.9K
    scsi-SATA_OCZ-REVODRIVE_XOCZ-V402GS0LRN721LK5-part1      -      -      0      7      0  95.9K
    scsi-SATA_OCZ-REVODRIVE_XOCZ-WI4ZOY2555CH3239-part1      -      -      0      7      0  95.9K
cache                                                        -      -      -      -      -      -
  scsi-SATA_OCZ-REVODRIVE_XOCZ-6G9S9B5XDR534931-part5    26.6G  56.7G      0      0      0      0
  scsi-SATA_OCZ-REVODRIVE_XOCZ-THM0SU3H89T5XGR1-part5    26.5G  56.8G      0      0      0      0
  scsi-SATA_OCZ-REVODRIVE_XOCZ-V402GS0LRN721LK5-part5    26.7G  56.7G      0      0      0      0
  scsi-SATA_OCZ-REVODRIVE_XOCZ-WI4ZOY2555CH3239-part5    26.7G  56.7G      0      0      0      0
-------------------------------------------------------  -----  -----  -----  -----  -----  -----

The ZIL should always be on non-volatile stable storage! You want your data to remain consistent across power outages. Putting your ZIL on a SLOG that is built from TMPFS, RAMFS, or RAM drives that are not battery backed means you will lose any pending transactions. This doesn't mean you'll have corrupted data. It only means you'll have old data. With the ZIL on volatile storage, you'll never be able to get the new data that was pending a write to stable storage. Depending on how busy your servers are, this could be a Big Deal. SSDs, such as from Intel or OCZ, are good cheap ways to have a fast, low latentcy SLOG that is reliable when power is cut.

Synchronous Writes without a SLOG

When you do not have a SLOG, the application only interfaces with RAM and slow platter disk. As previously discussed, the ZFS Intent LOG (ZIL) can be thought of as a file that resides on the slow platter disk. When the application needs to make a synchronous write, the contents of that write are sent to RAM, where the application is currently living, as well as sent to the ZIL. So, the data blocks of your synchronous write at this exact moment in time have two homes- RAM and the ZIL. Once the data has been written to the ZIL, the platter disk sends an acknowledgement back to the application letting it know that it has the data, at which point the data is flushed from RAM to slow platter disk.

This isn't ALWAYS the case, however. In the case of slow platter disk, ZFS can actually store the transaction group (TXG) on platter immediately, with pointers in the ZIL to the locations on platter. When the disk ACKs back that the ZIL contains the pointers to the data, then the write TXG is closed in RAM, and the space in the ZIL opened up for future transactions. So, in essence, you could think of the TXG SYNCHRONOUS write commit happening in three ways:

  1. All data blocks are synchronously written to both the RAM ARC and the ZIL.
  2. All data blocks are synchronously written to both the RAM ARC and the VDEV, with pointers to the blocks written in the ZIL.
  3. All data blocks are synchronously written to disk, where the ZIL is completely ignored.

In the image below, I tried to capture a simplified view of the first process. The pink arrows, labeled as number one, show the application committing its data to both RAM and the ZIL. Technically, the application is running in RAM already, but I took it out to make the image a bit more clean. After the blocks have been committed to RAM, the platter ACKs the write to the ZIL, noted by the green arrow labeled as number two. Finally, ZFS flushes the data blocks out of RAM to disk as noted by the gray arrow labeled as number three.

Show how a synchronous write works with ZFS and the ZIL on platter.
Image showing a synchronous write with ZFS without a SLOG

Synchronous Writes with a SLOG

The advantage of a SLOG, as previously outlined, is the ability to use low latency, fast disk to send the ACK back to the application. Notice that the ZIL now resides on the SLOG, and no longer resides on platter. The SLOG will catch all synchronous writes (well those called with O_SYNC and fsync(2) at least). Just as with platter disk, the ZIL will contain the data blocks the application is trying to commit to stable storage. However, the SLOG, being a fast SSD or NVRAM drive, ACKs the write to the ZIL, at which point ZFS flushes the data out of RAM to slow platter.

Notice that ZFS is not flushing the data out of the ZIL to platter. This is what confused me at first. The data is flushed from RAM to platter. Just like an ACID compliant RDBMS, the ZIL is only there to replay the transaction, should a failure occur, and the data is lost. Otherwise, the data is never read from the ZIL. So really, the write operation doesn't change at all. Only the location of the ZIL changes. Otherwise, the operation is exactly the same.

As shown in the image, again the pink arrows labeled number one show the application committing its data to both the RAM and the ZIL on the SLOG. The SLOG ACKs the write, as identified by the green arrow labeled number two, then ZFS flushes the data out of RAM to platter as identified by the gray arrow labeled number three.

Show how a synchronous write works with ZFS and the ZIL on a SLOG.
Image showing a synchronous write with ZFS with a SLOG

Asynchronous Writes

Asynchronous writes have a history of being "unstable". You have been taught that you should avoid asynchronous writes, and if you decide to go down that path, you should prepare for corrupted data in the event of a failure. For most filesystems, there is good counsel there. However, with ZFS, it's a nothing to be afraid of. Because of the architectural design of ZFS, all data is committed to disk in transaction groups. Further, the transactions are atomic, meaning you get it all, or you get none. You never get partial writes. This is true with asynchronous writes. So, your data is ALWAYS consistent on disk- even with asynchronous writes.

So, if that's the case, then what exactly is going on? Well, there actually resides a ZIL in RAM when you enable "sync=disabled" on your dataset. As is standard with the previous synchronous architectures, the data blocks of the application are sent to a ZIL located in RAM. As soon as the data is in the ZIL, RAM acknowledges the write, and then flushes the data do disk, as would be standard with synchronous data.

I know what you're thinking: "Now wait a minute! The are no acknowledgements with asynchronous writes!" Not always true. With ZFS, there is most certainly an acknowledgement, it's just one coming from very, very fast and extremely low latent volatile storage. The ACK is near instantaneous. Should there be a crash or some other failure that causes RAM to lose power, and the write was not saved to non-volatile storage, then the write is lost. However, all this means is you lost new data, and you're stuck with old but consistent data. Remember, with ZFS, data is committed in atomic transactions.

The image below illustrates an asynchronous write. Again, the pink number one arrow shows the application data blocks being initially written to the ZIL in RAM. RAM ACKs back with the green number two arrow. ZFS then flushes the data to disk, as per every previous implementation, as noted by the gray number 3 arrow. Notice in this image, even if you have a SLOG, with asynchronous writes, it's bypassed, and never used.

Show how an asynchronous write works with ZFS and the ZIL.
Image showing an asynchronous write with ZFS.


This is how I and my coworkers understand the ZIL. This is after reading loads of documentation, understanding a bit of computer science theory, and understanding how an ACID compliant RDBMS works, which is architected in a similar manner. If you think this is not correct, please let me know in the comments, and we can have a discussion about the architecture.

There are certainly some details I am glossing over, such as how much data the ZIL will hold before its no longer utilized, timing of the transaction group writes, and other things. However, it should also be noted that aside from some obscure documentation, there doesn't seem to be any solid examples of exactly how the ZIL functions. So, I thought it would be best to illustrate that here, so others aren't left confused like I was. For me, images always make things clearer to understand.

Password Attacks, Part II - The Dictionary Attack

Before we start delving into the obscure attacks, it probably makes the most sense to get introduced to the most common attacks. The dictionary attack is one such attack. Previously we talked about the brute force attack, which is highly ineffective, and exceptionally slow and expensive to maintain. Here, we'll introduce a much more effective attack that will open up the ability to crack 15 character passwords, and longer, with ease.

Dictionary Attack
The dictionary is another dumb search, except for one thing: an assumption is made that people choose passwords that are based on dictionary words, because adding mutations to the password requires more work, is more difficult to remember, and more difficult to type. Because humans are largely lazy by default, we take the lazy approach to password creation- base it on a dictionary word, and be done with it. After all, no one is really going to hack my account. Right?

A couple years ago, during the height of the Sony PlayStation 3 hacking saga, 77 million PlayStation Network accounts were leaked. These were accounts from all over the globe. Worse, SONY STORED 1 MILLION OF THOSE PASSWORDS IN PLAINTEXT! I'll let that sink in for a minute. These 1 million passwords were leaked to Bittorrent. So, we can do some analysis on the passwords themselves, such as length and difficulty. Troy Hunt did some amazing work on the analysis of the passwords, so this data should be credited to him, but let's look it over:

  • 93% of the passwords were between 6 and 10 characters long.
  • 50% of the passwords were less than 8 characters.
  • Of the following character sets, only 4% of the passwords had 3 or more: numbers, uppercase, lowercase, everything else.
  • 45% of the passwords were lowercase only.
  • 99% of the passwords did not contain non-alphanumeric characters.
  • 65% of the passwords can be found in a dictionary.
  • Within Sony, there were two separate accounts: "Beauty" and "Delboca". Where there was a common email address between the accounts, 92% of the accounts used the same password between both.
  • Comparing the Sony and Gawker hacks, where there was a common email address, 67% of those accounts used the same password.
  • 82% of the passwords would fall victim to a Rainbow Table Attack (something we'll cover later).

With the cryptography circles I run in, these numbers are not very surprising. 65% of the words found in a dictionary is actually a bit low. I've seen the average sit more around 70%, which is troubling. This means that a dictionary attack is extremely effective, no matter how long your password is. If it can be found in a dictionary, you'll fall victim.

Creating a Dictionary
So, what exactly is a dictionary that can be used for this attack? Generally, it's nothing more than a word list, with one word on each line. Standard Unix operating systems have a dictionary installed when a spell checking utility is installed. This can be found in /usr/share/dict/words. For the case of my Debian GNU/Linux system, I have about 100,000 words in the dictionary:

$ wc -l /usr/share/dict/words 
99171 /usr/share/dict/words

But, I can install a much larger wordlist:

$ sudo aptitude install wamerican-insane
$ sudo select-default-wordlist
$ wc -l /usr/share/dict/words

Even though my word list has grown by 6x the previous size, this still pales in comparison to some dictionaries you can download online. The Openwall word list contains 40 million entries, and is over 500 MB in size. It consists of words from over 20+ languages, and includes passwords generated with pwgen(1). It will cost you $27.95 USD for the download, however. There are plenty of other word lists all over the Internet. Spend some time searching, and you can generate a decently sized word list on your own.

Precomputed Dictionary
This will open the discussion for Rainbow Tables, something we'll discuss later on. However, with a precomputed dictionary attack, I can spend the time hashing all the values in my dictionary, and store them as a key/value pair, where the key is the hash, and the value is the password. This can save considerable time for the password cracking utility when doing the lookup. However, it comes at a cost; I must spend the time precomputing all the values in the dictionary. However, once they are computed, I can use this over and over for my lookups as needed. Disk space is also a concern. For a SHA1 hash, you'll be adding 40 bytes to every entry. For the Openwall word list, this means your dictionary will grow from 500 MB to 2 GB. Not a problem for today's storage, but certainiy something you should be aware of.

Rainbow tables are a version of the precomputed dictionary attack well look at later. The advantage of a rainbow table is savings on disk space for the cost of a bit longer lookup times. We still have precomputed hashes for dictionary words, but they don't occupy as much space.

Thwarting precomputed hashes can be accomplished by salting your password. I discuss password salts on my blog when discussing the shadowed password on Unix systems. Because hashing functions produce the same output for a given input, if that input changes, such as by adding a salt, the output will change. Even though your password was the same, by appending a salt to your password, the computed hash will be completely different. Even if I have your salt in my possession, precomputed dictionary attacks are of no use, because each salt for each account will likely be different, which means I need to precompute different dictionaries with different salts, a very costly task for both CPU and disk space.

However, if I have the salt in my possession, I can still use the salt in conjunction with a standard word list, to compute the desired hash. If I find the hash, I have found the word in your dictionary, even if I needed the salt to help me get there.

Because 65%-70% of people use dictionary words for their passwords, this makes the dictionary attack extremely attractive for attackers who have offline password databases. Even with the Openwall word list of 40 million words, most CPUs can exhaust that word list in seconds, meaning 70% of the passwords will be found in very little time with very little effort. Further, because 67% of the population or more use the same password across multiple accounts, if we know something about the accounts we've just attacked, we can now use that information to login to their bank, Facebook, email, Twitter and other accounts. For the effort, dictionary attacks are very valuable, and a first pick for many attackers.