Managed DPAPI Part I: ProtectedData

Overview of DPAPI

Although APIs such as CAPI and the .NET System.Security.Cryptography classes make using cryptography relatively easy, one of the hardest things to do when implementing a secure cryptographic system is key management.  In order to help out on that front, Windows 2000 introduced the Data Protection API (DPAPI).  DPAPI consists of two functions, CryptProtectData and CryptUnprotectData.

DPAPI works by generating a key from the current user's credentials (generally their password, although a smart card will provide a different credential).  It then generates a master key, and encrypts this with the key generated by the user's credentials.  A random session key is created for each call to CryptProtectData.  This key is derived from the master key, some random data, and some optional entropy passed in by the user.  The session key is then used to do the actual encryption.  Rather than storing the session key, the random data used in key creation is stored in the encrypted output.

For added security, the master key expires every few months.  When this happens, a new master key is generated, but the old one is retained for use in decrypting any data that it had previously encrypted.  This limits the amount of data that an attacker who has compromised a single master key can decrypt.

Notice how the entire system is based on the current user's password.  What happens when you change your password?  DPAPI will hook the password changing event, and re-encrypt the master keys using the new password.

The output from CryptProtectData is contains not only the encrypted data, but also the master key GUID, the random data used to create the session key, as well as a possible salt value and a HMAC signature of the blob to ensure that it isn't tampered with.  However, you should always treat this output as an opaque blob that is only useful as input to CryptUnprotectData.  DPAPI will not store this blob, so its up to the calling application to persist it if needed.

DPAPI also provides a flag to work in machine mode rather that in user mode.  This mode encrypts that data such that any process on the current machine can decrypt it.

For more information on how DPAPI works under the covers, check out the excellent MSDN article “Windows Data Protection.”

Using DPAPI with .NET

Version 1.0 and 1.1 needed to use P/Invoke to work with CryptProtectData and CryptUnprotectData (you can find their P/Invoke signatures here and here).  Microsoft's PAG group did provide a sample library to do this (you can find that in the MSDN article “How To Create a DPAPI Library“), but there was no out of the box support for DPAPI calls.  With Whidbey, we're introducing the new ProtectedData class which wraps DPAPI in an easy to use package.  ProtectedData contains two static functions, Protect and Unprotect.  Since there's no MSDN docs yet for Whidbey, I'll provide their signatures here.

byte[] Protect(byte[] userData, byte[] optionalEntropy, DataProtectionScope scope)
userData data to encrypt
optionalEntropy extra entropy to encrypt with
scope either DataProtectionScope.CurrentUser or DataProtectionScope.LocalMachine

The corresponding unprotect method is:

byte[] Unprotect(byte[] encryptedData, byte[] optionalEntropy, DataProtectionScope scope)
encryptedData output blob from Protect
optionalEntropy entropy used in the call to corresponding Protect
scope either DataProtectionScope.CurrentUser or DataProtectionScope.LocalMachine

For the most part these methods are pretty self explanatory, and are relatively thin wrappers around CryptProtect and CryptUnprotectData. 

optionalEntropy can be used to prevent other applications from being able to decrypt your user data.  Since the key for decryption is dependent on user credentials, any application the user is running will be able to decrypt this data if they're able to get ahold of it.  By setting this byte array, you're adding some additional entropy to the key derivation step, and nobody will be able to decrypt the data without knowing that byte array.  However, if you do use this entropy, youll find yourself with the same old problem of securely protecting a private key.  In practice, you're probably not too concerned about other applications being run by the same user decrypting data that it happens to find in your app.  If that's the case, you can simply set this parameter to null.  Whatever value you do pass here, you'll need to make sure that you pass the same value to Unprotect, otherwise your data will be unable to be decrypted.

Setting a scope of DataProtectionScope.CurrentUser encrypts the data so that only the currently logged on user can decrypt it.  Switching to DataProtectionScope.LocalMachine allows any process running on the current machine to decrypt the data.  This could be useful in a server scenario, where there are no untrusted logins to the machine, but for a general purpose workstation using LocalMachine encryption is almost equivalent to using no encryption at all (since anybody logged in can get at the data).

Along with the ProtecedData class, Whidbey also introduces the DataProtectionPermission.  This permission must be granted to all code on the call stack for ProtectedData to work.  DataProtectionPermission can also be limited to only allow protecting data, or only allow unprotecting it.

A Quick Sample

Here's some sample code showing the use of these methods.  As you can see they're quite easy to use, and relieve you of the hard to solve key management problem.  I highly recommend using this class if you need to store encrypted data with Whidbey.

byte[] entropy = new byte[] { 0x21, 0x05, 0x07, 0x08, 0x27, 0x02, 0x23 };
byte[] sensitiveData = Encoding.Unicode.GetBytes("Some sensitive data");
byte[] protectedData = ProtectedData.Protect(sensitiveData, entropy, DataProtectionScope.CurrentUser);

PrintBytes(protectedData)// utility function that simply prints out the byte array -- not part of the framework

byte[] unprotectedBytes = ProtectedData.Unprotect(protectedData, entropy, DataProtectionScope.CurrentUser);

The output of this simple code snippet is:

01, 00, 00, 00, D0, 8C, 9D, DF, 01, 15
D1, 11, 8C, 7A, 00, C0, 4F, C2, 97, EB
01, 00, 00, 00, A1, 7A, 33, 0B, 3A, 5A
EF, 44, 80, B3, 2E, A7, D2, 15, BE, EC
00, 00, 00, 00, 02, 00, 00, 00, 00, 00
03, 66, 00, 00, A8, 00, 00, 00, 10, 00
00, 00, 81, B5, A3, 00, 84, D6, 06, 22
B3, DD, 02, F4, 53, 32, C8, 88, 00, 00
00, 00, 04, 80, 00, 00, A0, 00, 00, 00
10, 00, 00, 00, E8, BC, A2, CE, 88, 37
8E, 21, 20, 40, A4, 9E, A3, B9, FC, 47
28, 00, 00, 00, 92, 1F, 97, 84, 4B, A8
B9, 2A, CB, 9F, AA, C7, 36, 59, 52, AB
17, 22, 34, 5D, 79, 19, 70, FD, A1, CC
33, E0, B7, D4, 1B, DC, 76, 6E, D3, 50
C0, BF, 8A, 8F, 14, 00, 00, 00, 83, DE
8E, F8, FB, 4F, 0E, 43, FF, 8B, 65, D9
6E, BF, 1D, 95, 28, 67, 21, DD
Some sensitive data

Comments (13)
  1. Buck Hodges says:

    Hatteras has three tiers: client, middle, and data.  The middle tier is an ASP.NET web service on…

  2. An obvious question after my last post is of course – What is DPAPI? Beginning Windows 2000, the OS comes

  3. Essam says:

    Can we use DPAPI to encrypt/decrypt data between a clinet/server transmission of data ?

  4. Hi Essam,

    DPAPI keys are associated with the user account on the machine, so it is not appropraite for use in a client / server scenario.


  5. Vlad says:

    So, basically, entropy acts as a salt added to reversable hashing. Too bad there’s no word on how strong the encryption is.

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