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Ken Thompson’s Unix password #VintageComputing #History #Unix

Leah Neukirchen‘s blog discusses a Unix password file discovered in 2014 containing the encrypted passwords of all the old timers such as Dennis Ritchie, Ken Thompson, Brian W. Kernighan, Steve Bourne and Bill Joy. What a treasure! Many were cracked as they were weak…

However, kens password eluded my cracking endeavor. Even an exhaustive search over all lower-case letters and digits took several days (back in 2014) and yielded no result. Since the algorithm was developed by Ken Thompson and Robert Morris, I wondered what’s up there. I also realized, that, compared to other password hashing schemes (such as NTLM), crypt(3) turns out to be quite a bit slower to crack (and perhaps was also less optimized).

The topic came up again earlier this month on The Unix Heritage Society mailing list, and they shared their results and frustration of not being able to break kens password.

Finally, today this secret was resolved by Nigel Williams:

From: Nigel Williams <nw@retrocomputingtasmania.com>
Subject: Re: [TUHS] Recovered /etc/passwd files

ken is done:

ZghOT0eRm4U9s:p/q2-q4!

took 4+ days on an AMD Radeon Vega64 running hashcat at about 930MH/s
during that time (those familiar know the hash-rate fluctuates and
slows down towards the end).

Apparently, this is a chess move in descriptive notation, and the beginning of many common openings. It fits very well to Ken Thompson’s background in computer chess.

Mystery solved.

See Leah’s post for additional details.


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