Improved AppPasswords in Nextcloud 14

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Nextcloud AppPasswords Encryption

The app passwords have been available in Nextcloud for some time now. They were first introduced when we added second factor authentication to Nextcloud, as you still want to have a way to connect your mobile and desktop clients to your account. In the early days this was all manual labor.

In the last year we have added support for app passwords to our mobile clients and the desktop client is following soon. This means that you authenticate when you setup your account using a normal login (with second factor authentication if required). A long random (72 character) app password is generated for you.

App passwords have several advantages. For example your real password is never stored on your devices. Also you can revoke access to a specific device in your security settings of your Nextcloud, blocking your lost phone from accessing your data. All pretty sweet.

AppPasswords original design

Now on to explaining how app passwords used to work.

Nextcloud never stores your password in plain text. And this means we also never store your app password in plain text. Roughly what we stored are three things:

  1. your username
  2. a hash of your app password
  3. your password symmetrically encrypted with the app password

This means that if you authenticate with your (userName, appPassword) we do the following:

  1. appPasswordHash = hash(appPassword)
  2. Lookup (userName, appPasswordHash) in the table
  3. password = decrypt_symmetric(encryptedPassword, appPassword)
  4. validate your password against your user back-end

Improvements

The main draw back of our first implementation is that when a user changed their password this means that all their app passwords are invalid. This is caused by the password being encrypted by the app password and only the hash being stored in the database.

So to overcome this issue we needed to find a solution to update the encrypted password without knowing the actual app passwords. The answer to this is public key cryptography.

This means a few changes as a first step we generate a RSA key pair. then we store the following:

  1. your username
  2. a hash of your app password
  3. your private key symmetrically encrypted with your app password
  4. your public key
  5. your password encrypted with your public key

Now the flow when your login with (userName, appPassword) changes slightly.

  1. appPasswordHash = hash(appPassword)
  2. Lookup (userName, appPasswordHash) in the table
  3. privateKey = decrypt_symmetric(encryptedPrivateKey, appPassword)
  4. password = decrypt(EncryptedPassword, privateKey)
  5. validate your password against your user back-end

Now to update your password we simply fetch all the app passwords for a user. And for each app password encrypt the new password with their public key.

Note: we don’t actually get the app passwords form the database just the rows with hashed app passwords. However, for this step we don’t rely on the actual app password.

Migration

To make things as smooth as possible we made sure that migration to the new app passwords is transparent to the user. Your old app passwords will not be invalidated. Instead the first time you use them they will automatically be converted. So from a user perspective nothing changes.

Future work

We feel that this improvement brings app passwords to a new level. Not having to re-authenticate your devices when you change your password makes the user experience a lot better.

Of course there is room for improvement. Currently the app passwords are only updated when you use our default user back-end. If you use for example LDAP then Nextcloud never gets told the new password. We are already working on improving this in Nextcloud 15! So stay tuned!