Why is char[] preferred over String for passwords in Java?

In Swing, the password field has a getPassword() (returns char[]) method instead of the usual getText() (returns String) method. Similarly, I have come across a suggestion not to use String to handle passwords.

Why does String pose a threat to security when it comes to passwords? It feels inconvenient to use char[].

Why is char[] preferred over String for passwords? Answer #1:

Strings are immutable. That means once you’ve created the String, if another process can dump memory, there’s no way (aside from reflection) you can get rid of the data before garbage collection kicks in.

With an array, you can explicitly wipe the data after you’re done with it. You can overwrite the array with anything you like, and the password won’t be present anywhere in the system, even before garbage collection.

So yes, this is a security concern – but even using char[] only reduces the window of opportunity for an attacker, and it’s only for this specific type of attack.

As noted in the comments, it’s possible that arrays being moved by the garbage collector will leave stray copies of the data in memory. I believe this is implementation-specific – the garbage collector may clear all memory as it goes, to avoid this sort of thing. Even if it does, there’s still the time during which the char[] contains the actual characters as an attack window.

Char[] vs String for passwords- Answer #2:

While other suggestions here seem valid, there is one other good reason. With plain String you have much higher chances of accidentally printing the password to logs, monitors or some other insecure place. char[] is less vulnerable.

Consider this:

public static void main(String[] args) {
    Object pw = "Password";
    System.out.println("String: " + pw);

    pw = "Password".toCharArray();
    System.out.println("Array: " + pw);
}

Prints:

String: Password
Array: [[email protected]

Answer #3:

To quote an official document, the Java Cryptography Architecture guide says this about char[] vs. String passwords (about password-based encryption, but this is more generally about passwords of course):

It would seem logical to collect and store the password in an object of type java.lang.String. However, here’s the caveat: Objects of type String are immutable, i.e., there are no methods defined that allow you to change (overwrite) or zero out the contents of a String after usage. This feature makes String objects unsuitable for storing security sensitive information such as user passwords. You should always collect and store security sensitive information in a char array instead.

Guideline 2-2 of the Secure Coding Guidelines for the Java Programming Language, Version 4.0 also says something similar (although it is originally in the context of logging):

Guideline 2-2: Do not log highly sensitive information

Some information, such as Social Security numbers (SSNs) and passwords, is highly sensitive. This information should not be kept for longer than necessary nor where it may be seen, even by administrators. For instance, it should not be sent to log files and its presence should not be detectable through searches. Some transient data may be kept in mutable data structures, such as char arrays, and cleared immediately after use. Clearing data structures has reduced effectiveness on typical Java runtime systems as objects are moved in memory transparently to the programmer.

This guideline also has implications for implementation and use of lower-level libraries that do not have semantic knowledge of the data they are dealing with. As an example, a low-level string parsing library may log the text it works on. An application may parse an SSN with the library. This creates a situation where the SSNs are available to administrators with access to the log files.

Answer #4:

Character arrays (char[]) can be cleared after use by setting each character to zero and Strings not. If someone can somehow see the memory image, they can see a password in plain text if Strings are used, but if char[] is used, after purging data with 0’s, the password is secure.

Answer #5:

Some people believe that you have to overwrite the memory used to store the password once you no longer need it. This reduces the time window an attacker has to read the password from your system and completely ignores the fact that the attacker already needs enough access to hijack the JVM memory to do this. An attacker with that much access can catch your key events making this completely useless (AFAIK, so please correct me if I am wrong).

Update

Thanks to the comments I have to update my answer. Apparently, there are two cases where this can add a (very) minor security improvement as it reduces the time a password could land on the hard drive. Still I think it’s overkill for most use cases.

  • Your target system may be badly configured or you have to assume it is and you have to be paranoid about core dumps (can be valid if the systems are not managed by an administrator).
  • Your software has to be overly paranoid to prevent data leaks with the attacker gaining access to the hardware – using things like TrueCrypt (discontinued), VeraCrypt, or CipherShed.

If possible, disabling core dumps and the swap file would take care of both problems. However, they would require administrator rights and may reduce functionality (less memory to use) and pulling RAM from a running system would still be a valid concern.

Answer #6:

I don’t think this is a valid suggestion, but, I can at least guess at the reason.

I think the motivation is wanting to make sure that you can erase all trace of the password in memory promptly and with certainty after it is used. With a char[] you could overwrite each element of the array with a blank or something for sure. You can’t edit the internal value of a String that way.

But that alone isn’t a good answer; why not just make sure a reference to the char[] or String doesn’t escape? Then there’s no security issue. But the thing is that String objects can be intern()ed in theory and kept alive inside the constant pool. I suppose using char[] forbids this possibility.

As Jon Skeet states, there is no way except by using reflection.

However, if reflection is an option for you, you can do this.

public static void main(String[] args) {
    System.out.println("please enter a password");
    // don't actually do this, this is an example only.
    Scanner in = new Scanner(System.in);
    String password = in.nextLine();
    usePassword(password);

    clearString(password);

    System.out.println("password: '" + password + "'");
}

private static void usePassword(String password) {

}

private static void clearString(String password) {
    try {
        Field value = String.class.getDeclaredField("value");
        value.setAccessible(true);
        char[] chars = (char[]) value.get(password);
        Arrays.fill(chars, '*');
    } catch (Exception e) {
        throw new AssertionError(e);
    }
}

when run

please enter a password
hello world
password: '***********'

Note: if the String’s char[] has been copied as a part of a GC cycle, there is a chance the previous copy is somewhere in memory.

This old copy wouldn’t appear in a heap dump, but if you have direct access to the raw memory of the process you could see it. In general, you should avoid anyone having such access.

Answer #7:

The answer has already been given, but I’d like to share an issue that I discovered lately with Java standard libraries. While they take great care now of replacing password strings with char[] everywhere (which of course is a good thing), other security-critical data seems to be overlooked when it comes to clearing it from memory.

I’m thinking of e.g. the PrivateKey class. Consider a scenario where you would load a private RSA key from a PKCS#12 file, using it to perform some operation. Now in this case, sniffing the password alone wouldn’t help you much as long as physical access to the key file is properly restricted. As an attacker, you would be much better off if you obtained the key directly instead of the password. The desired information can be leaked manifold, core dumps, a debugger session or swap files are just some examples.

And as it turns out, there is nothing that lets you clear the private information of a PrivateKey from memory, because there’s no API that lets you wipe the bytes that form the corresponding information.

This is a bad situation, as this paper describes how this circumstance could be potentially exploited.

The OpenSSL library for example overwrites critical memory sections before private keys are freed. Since Java is garbage-collected, we would need explicit methods to wipe and invalidate private information for Java keys, which are to be applied immediately after using the key.

Hope you learned something from this post.

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Linux and Python enthusiast, in love with open source since 2014, Writer at programming-articles.com, India.

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