Password Reset for End-to-End Encrypted Applications

François Best • February 15, 2020 • 5 min read

We all forget our passwords. And that's OK, most of the time.

Some people have built entire businesses around that fact: Password Managers such as Bitwarden, 1Password, LastPass, Dashlane, KeePass etc..

They all offer you a similar promise:

You have only one password to rembember.

Which brings us back to our opening statement: we, humans, forget passwords.

And while most web services have a password reset feature to alleviate that, End-to-end encrypted (E2EE) apps such as password managers don't allow you to lose your main password (the one that unlocks your account).

This is because those password managers don't have access to your main password.

If they did, it would be a terrible security design flaw on their part, and you should probably look for a replacement 1.

Traditional password resets can vary a lot in security and complexity. Troy Hunt has an excellent article on how to do this the right way. The gist of it is:

  1. A user asks for a password reset
  2. An email is sent to them containing a link that bypasses the traditional authentication mechanism
  3. The user enters a new password
  4. The password entry is updated in the database

The key here is that the password is sent in clear text to the server, which will (hopefully) salt it & hash it using a slow algorithm like Bcrypt/Scrypt/Argon2 before saving it in a database.

Because there is no password storage of any kind in the backend of an E2EE app, there is nothing to update with this kind of system.

Moreover, the issue is that some (if not all) of the data in the database is stored as received: encrypted with a key that the server does not have. If that key is lost, because it depends on the lost main password, there is no way to decrypt the existing data.

The only thing those apps can do is to reset your account, wipe the slate clean by deleting all the existing unreadable data and let you use the same username or email address for a fresh start.

This is not ideal. There is a way to allow a user to recover their data if they lose access to their main password though:

Using horcruxes.

Shamir Secret Sharing#

In 1979, Adi Shamir wrote "How to share a secret", explaining a technique now named after him, Shamir Secret Sharing.

It allows splitting a secret into a number of parts, each individually useless to the owner. Even if someone were to gather all but one of the parts, the secret would still be safe. All the parts are required to reconstruct the secret.

To apply this to a password reset system, the password can be split in two shards. One shard would be sent to the server, and the other presented to the user, asking them to save it somewhere safe.

Here is an example output in TypeScript using @stablelib/tss :

import crypto from 'crypto'
import { split, IDENTIFIER_LENGTH } from '@stablelib/tss'
import { utf8, hex } from '@47ng/codec'

const shards = split(
  utf8.encode('supersecretpassword'),
  2, // Require 2 shards to recompose the secret
  2, // Generate 2 shards in total
  crypto.randomBytes(IDENTIFIER_LENGTH) // Random identifier
).map(shard => hex.encode(shard))

// Server shard:
// 7db2d515c461711e28a1a099aabc7cf5
// 0202003401eceaeffaedecfafcedfaeb
// effeecece8f0edfbc55ecd2967222724
// 8d0a0ad74add54bce3d5ec9ffb201724
// 2742f1bfd68d2532
//
// User shard:
// 7db2d515c461711e28a1a099aabc7cf5
// 02020034025650554057564046574051
// 55445656524a57417fe47793dd989d9e
// 37b0b06df067ee06596f5625419aad9e
// 9df84b056c379f88

Password Reset Flow#

Now that the user has saved their shard, and the server shard has been saved in the database, a password reset flow can be initiated.

Everything happens on the client side in an E2EE app, so the app cannot ask the user to send their shard to the server, as it would give it access to the keys to unlock all the data.

Instead, the server sends an email with a link containing a temporary token. The reason the server shard is not sent directly in the email link is to allow that link to expire.

When the user visits that link, the token is used to retrieve the server shard, and the user is asked to enter their shard.

Recomposition happens on the client side, to regenerate whatever secret is used to authenticate / decrypt the data:

import { combine } from '@stablelib/tss'
import { utf8, hex } from '@47ng/codec'

const shards = [
  '7db2d515c461711e28a1a099aabc7cf50202003401eceaeffaedecfafcedfaebeffeecece8f0edfbc55ecd29672227248d0a0ad74add54bce3d5ec9ffb2017242742f1bfd68d2532',
  '7db2d515c461711e28a1a099aabc7cf50202003402565055405756404657405155445656524a57417fe47793dd989d9e37b0b06df067ee06596f5625419aad9e9df84b056c379f88'
].map(shard => hex.decode(shard))

const secret = utf8.decode(combine(shards))

// Secret:
// supersecretpassword

Caveats#

While this system can be convenient, it poses a security risk, even though it requires compromising both wherever the user stored their shard and their email account, it can happen.

Brute-force attacks on this system should be dimensioned to be similar to attacking the encrypted data, 256 bits of entropy in the secret to split gives a good trade-off between shard size and computational complexity for an attack.

If the user loses their shard, there is nothing that can be done to recover the account. So one could say it's the same problem as a password, but the size of the shard plays in favour of storing it somewhere safe, as it cannot be remembered.

... for neither can live, while the other survives.

-- JK Rowling, Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix

  1. It's not always easy to know what an app does when you can't read its source code.
    I use Bitwarden to manage my passwords especially because it is open-source.

François Best

Freelance developer & founder

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