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Firefox Fails at Keeping Passwords Secure, Developer Claims

Recovering Encrypted Firefox Passwords via Brute Force Attacks is Easy, Developer Says

Firefox does a poor job at securing stored passwords even if the user has set up a master password, a software developer claims.

According to Wladimir Palant, author of the popular Adblock Plus extension, the password manager in Firefox and Thunderbird needs some major improvements in terms of security. The manager can spill out passwords in less than a minute, he says.

The issue, Palant claims, resides in the manner in which the manager converts a password into an encryption key. The operation is performed by the sftkdb_passwordToKey() function, which applies SHA-1 hashing to a string consisting of a random salt and the actual master password.

In the current implementation, the SHA-1 function has a very low iteration count of 1, meaning that it falls way behind what’s considered a minimum value in practice, namely 10,000. In fact, an iteration count of at least 1,000 was considered “modest” decades ago.

Because of that, recovering encrypted passwords via brute force attacks is not difficult at all, Palant says. In fact, he underlines that graphics processing units (GPUs) are great at calculating SHA-1 hashes. With some of them capable of calculating billions of SHA-1 hashes per second, it would not take more than a minute to crack the passwords encrypted and stored in Firefox.

This NSS bug was first reported about nine years ago, but remains unpatched. And it wouldn’t even be that difficult to address the issue, the developer says.

“NSS library implements PBKDF2 algorithm which would slow down bruteforcing attacks considerably if used with at least 100,000 iterations. Of course, it would be nice to see NSS implement a more resilient algorithm like Argon2 but that’s wishful thinking seeing a fundamental bug that didn’t find an owner in nine years,” Palant notes.

Robert Relyea, who has worked for over 20 years on NSS, notes that, while the iteration count could be increased, it would not affect the security of old databases, which would remain readable. Only changing the master password (even to the same password) for them would also increase the iteration count.

The issue was thought resolved in PKCS #12, but it wasn’t fixed for the NSS database password (Firefox Master Password) too. Thus, Relyea reopened the bug, so it could be properly addressed.

Mozilla is also working on a new password manager component for Firefox. Dubbed Lockbox and available as an extension, it might not solve the issue either, Palant says, pointing out that it relies on Firefox Accounts, which could prevent wide adoption.

Even if this issue still exists in Firefox, setting up a master password for Firefox’ manager is still better than using none. Of course, using a password manager that isn’t impacted by such bugs is even better, although cracking firms would say that the security of such tools is debatable.

Related: Overall Security of Password Managers Debatable, Cracking Firm Says

Related: Firefox 63 to Distrust All Symantec Root Certificates

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