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Encrypting passwords in Python with passlib

Encryption is a must when dealing with sensitive data or passwords. In a previous blog post we've looked at encrypting using werkzeug, which comes with Flask. In this post we'll take it further and use a popular encryption library called passlib.

Not relying on werkzeug means you can take anything in this blog post and apply it to any Python app—and not just Flask apps.

I'd recommend reading my previous blog post on encryption for a general overview regarding what encryption is and why it's important. This is also another good, quick guide on cryptography.

Encryption algorithms

There are many different encryption algorithms, and we are constantly searching for and coming up with new and better algorithms. Some that were used in the past are now considered unsafe, and the most modern ones are generally considered uncrackable.

Some of the encryption algorithms that are presently out there are:

  • Argon2
  • PBKDF2
  • Bcrypt / Scrypt

These are different in their hardware requirements, speed, and implementation. However, they are all extremely difficult to crack.

I cannot recommend learning everything about how encryption algorithms work, because it is a very complex field (full of mathematics!). A very modern, heavily scrutinised, and seemingly well rounded algorithm is Argon2. However, you may find some issues in some operating systems when it comes to using it.

Since the biggest problem with encryption is that software developers don't use it enough, any of the choices is better than none of them. I would recommend using PBKDF2 or Argon2, as they are both "better" than Bcrypt and not as hardware-consuming as Scrypt.

To keep things simple we'll use PBKDF2—as it works on all operating systems and hosting providers.

We'll be using passlib as our Python library to implement encryption. They have an excellent guide on how to pick an encryption algorithm.

Using passlib

To install passlib, all we need to do is:

pip install passlib

You may get some warnings about missing libraries. These would be used for other encryption algorithms. If you want to use something other than PBKDF2, please look at the optional libraries section in the Passlib documentation for information on which one(s) you need.

The CryptContext

Passlib works by defining the context used for encryption. In it, we specify what algorithm we'll use for encryption, as well as any configuration parameters for the algorithm.

We can skip using a CryptContext, and instead interacting with the encryption algorithm directly. Passlib provides a way to do this. However, using a CryptContext allows us to more explicitly define configuration parameters, and makes things more readable. Also, it allows us to support multiple encryption algorithms at once should that be a requirement for our system.

Creating the context with PBKDF2 is done like as below. Place the following code in a new file (e.g. security.py):

from passlib.context import CryptContext

pwd_context = CryptContext(
        schemes=["pbkdf2_sha256"],
        default="pbkdf2_sha256",
        pbkdf2_sha256__default_rounds=30000
)

What are rounds?

A round is a part of the encryption algorithm that runs many times in order to reduce "crackability". Different algorithms recommend using different numbers of rounds.

This is a fantastic StackOverflow answer from a passlib developer which goes into more detail about rounds, and also how to calculate what number of rounds to choose.

Depending on how many rounds you choose, the algorithm will take longer to encrypt and decrypt. Thus, your users will have to wait for longer for your application to resume. Pick a number too large, and your users will be frustrated. Pick a number too low, and your user's data will not be safe.

A rule of thumb is to make the users wait a maximum of ~350 milliseconds—so you can fine tune the number of rounds so your algorithm doesn't take longer than that.

Encrypting and verifying passwords

Now that we have our CryptContext, we can use it to encrypt and verify passwords. Let's add a couple functions inside the same file where we created the context:

def encrypt_password(password):
    return pwd_context.encrypt(password)


def check_encrypted_password(password, hashed):
    return pwd_context.verify(password, hashed)

That's it! Whenever we want to store a user's password in a database, we should encrypt it first by using our encrypt_password() function. Whenever we want to log in a user, we'll compare the password they provided in the log in form with the password stored in the database, by using the check_encrypted_password() function.

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