I encrypt data with this command:

openssl aes-256-cbc -a -salt -in C:\Users\User\secrets.txt -out C:\Users\User\secrets.txt.encs

The program then asks that I...

enter aes-256-cbc encryption password:

Is the encryption password the same as the key? Where is the password or key stored?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Passwords are typically very short, so they would not be cryptographically secure, as well as the fact that they are not 100% random. But since it is hard to memorize a 256 bit cryptographic key, we commonly use something called a Key Derivation Function (KDF). These are used to generate a key using the password as an input, and are computationally difficult in order to slow down brute force attacks. More information can be found here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Key_derivation_function In addition, a commonly used implementation can be found here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PBKDF2 $\endgroup$
    – john doe
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 19:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Consider using openssl aes-256-cbc -salt -pbkdf2 -in name -out name.enc, since this uses a strong key derivation function. $\endgroup$
    – john doe
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 19:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Since you didn't use -K (uppercase) it's a password. For the traditional or default key derivation, see crypto.stackexchange.com/questions/3298/… and crypto.stackexchange.com/questions/36981/… . Neither password nor key is stored anywhere, but salt is in the output file. @johndoe+ note that's new in 1.1.1. Also -salt has been the default for decades. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 2:41

1 Answer 1


Passwords or pass phrases are basically a human equivalent of keys used by algorithms on computers. However, because of that passwords also carry a lot of burden that make them unsuitable as keys:

  1. they are generally much less random than they symmetric key counterparts, because humans are quite incapable as random number generators;
  2. they may be dynamically sized, which makes them unsuitable for many cryptographic algorithms;
  3. they often use a specific set of characters (al alphabet) of their own;
  4. they can be converted to bytes in many ways, if just because there are many character encodings;
  5. the chances of reuse are rather high, so the leaking one password may influence security of many systems.

Generally cryptographers use a PBKDF or password hash to create a statically sized, random byte array from a password. This byte array can then be used as a key, or it can be used to authenticate a person on e.g. a webservice.

These PBKDF's strengthen or stretch the security of the password by a certain work factor. This work factor is usually represented by an iteration count or by a value that is converted into an iteration count (bcrypt uses a work factor which is exponential).

Furthermore, they require a salt to avoid that the same password will create the same hash, even on multiple systems. Because of this rainbow table attacks can be avoided.

Other configuration parameters such as deliberate use of more memory to avoid attacks by specialized hardware or GPU based systems may also be present. See e.g. scrypt. Another common configuration parameter is to allow multiple threads to calculate a single password; it doesn't seem used much.

One configuration parameter that is often missing because it is simply implied is the character encoding. Quite often initial operation to convert characters to bytes is the cause of interoperability issues. Some PBKDF's are also limited to the amount of input bytes (e.g. some bcrypt implementations limit to 72 bits, which can be problem for passphrases).

OpenSSL uses its own PBKDF called EVP_BytesToKey. It uses a rather insecure iteration count of 1, which means that no real strengthening is performed. Furthermore, it also uses a salt, which is stored in the positions 8..15 of the ciphertext, preceded by a magic value "Salted__" in ASCII (take a look at the head of your ciphertext!). You may have to decode the base 64 first though (or compare against U2FsdGVkX1 at the start, most of Salted__ encoded).

The salt is generated during encryption, and with the iteration count it is able to derive a key, which is used to encrypt your plaintext. During decryption the salt is read so it is able to derive the same key - but only if you give it the correct password of course. Once the key is calculated again it can decrypt the ciphertext.

Newer versions have an option to use PBKDF2 instead. This algorithm doesn't disallow hackers to use specialized hardware, but it is at least more secure than the original EVP_BytesToKey with an iteration count of 1.

Neither the password or key is stored with the ciphertext. The password is supplied by the user, the key is derived from that password and the salt.

Note that the ciphertext allows an attacker to perform a so called offline attack, where all computing resources can be used on the ciphertext to try and get to the password by guessing it (using dictionary attacks and such). This is different from web services that can e.g. include a timeout between tries or only allow a certain number of guesses - as long as the password hash is kept secret.

A much more secure way of encrypting files is to use a trusted public key of the receiver. Then the receiver can use their private key to decrypt the ciphertext. Commonly this is used in a hybrid cryptosystem that uses both asymmetric cryptography and symmetric cryptography. However, it does require that the public key can be trusted, so you need a Public Key Infrastructure of some kind to trust the keys. This is what e.g. PGP uses for file encryption.

Often a password may still be used, but that's just to decrypt the private key, and the private key is usually kept on the system of the user, so it isn't available to adversaries.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ bcrypt is usually limited to 72 bytes, and sometimes less, but not 64 bits. Also enc -a base64's the ciphertext which makes it harder for some people to recognize the Salted__. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 3:34
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, I think one of my routers did 64, but yeah, I'm sure that must be right then. $\endgroup$
    – Maarten Bodewes
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 3:43
  • $\begingroup$ The difference between key and password, come along with difference between something we know vs something we have. As you said, passwords are more memorable, thus we can save it in out mind. $\endgroup$
    – Erfankam
    Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 8:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.