I always wondered how Google Authenticator style 2-factor codes worked. The process of going from QR code to rotating 6-digit pin seemed
a bit magical. A few days ago, my curiosity found itself coupled with some free time. Here’s what I found:
What’s in the QR Code
I scanned the QR code from Github with a barcode scanning app. Here’s what’s inside:
Not too surprising. It tells us the protocol, TOTP, who is issuing this OTP code (Github), and most importantly the secret:
secret = 'onswg4tforrw6zdf'
So how do we go from this to a time rotating 6-digit code?
From Secret to 6-digit Code
I followed the spec and was able to implement a Python script that generated the same codes as Google Authenticator. Before we dive in, a quick overview:
- Figure out your
time_chunk based on the current time.
- Generate an hmac that combines your
time_chunk and your secret. Combining these with HMAC is a convenient way to prove that you have the secret without revealing it. It’s a sha1-hmac, which means we’ll get a 20-byte digest.
- Converting the digest into a number has two steps:
- Take the last 4-bits of the digest. These become the offset (back into the digest). Eg. if the last 4 bits are
0010, then we would start at the 4th byte.
- Read 4 bytes starting from the offset.
- Convert the 4 byte section into a n digit integer. This is your two-factor code.
Here’s how that works in practice:
The algorithm works by finding what 30 second time slice we’re in, starting from the Unix Epoch:
time_chunk = int(time.time() / 30)
# To feed this into the next step, we need the binary representation.
# Per the spec, the time is represented as an 8-byte string in
# big endian. '>q' gets us a big-endian unsigned long (8-bytes)
time_bytes = struct.pack('>q', time_chunk)
Most server implementations will accept any time chunk within a fairly small range of surrounding 30 second buckets to allow for clock skew.
Next, feed our time_chunk in the HOTP algorithm. HOTP is an algorithm for using HMAC to generate one-time-passwords based on a counter. In the case of TOTP, the counter is the time chunk we’re in. First, we need to create an hmac of our secret key and the count:
key = base64.b32decode(secret.upper()) # Python only b32decodes upper case
hm = hmac.new(key, time_bytes, hashlib.sha1)
hex_digest = hm.hexdigest()
Side note: The default hash function in Python for HMACs is MD5!
Armed with the hex digest, we next need to determine the offset in the array we’ll be reading from. This offset is chosen based on the last 4-bit chunk of the array:
# Take the last 4 bits. These become the offset into the array
offset = int(hex_digest[-1:], 16)
Starting at the offset, read 4 bytes. This will be the basis of our 6 digit code:
# Take 4 bytes starting from the offset (in bytes). Our array of hex digits is 1/2 byte
# per character, hence offset*2 and +8
relevant_bytes = int(hex_digest[offset*2:offset*2+8], 16)
Drop the highest order bit (the sign). Dropping this makes it easier to implement in different programming languages which may have differing behavior on signed module operations.
unsigned_bytes = relevant_bytes & 0x7FFFFFFF
Last but not least, take the unsigned
result % 10**d where d is the number of digits you want. In our case, that’s 6:
num_digits = 6
final = masked % (10 ** num_digits)
# left pad zeros for ease of use
final_str = str(final).zfill(6)
It’s not in the spec as far as I saw, but Google Authenticator style codes usually also include backup codes. The Google implementation derives them by taking 4-byte sections of the secret and converting them into digits by the same process as the time-based system:
bignum % (10 ** d). This means they’re also derivable in a predictable way from the original key so they don’t need to by stored separately by the server. Some other systems use hex-based codes instead, but presumably it’s a similar process.
Should you implement 2-factor auth, make sure your comparison method is safe from timing attacks. I did a quick survey of 2-factor libraries and of libraries that offered
verify methods, most got it right. The easiest way to compare 2-factor codes in a constant time way is convert to
ints first. Google does it, so I think it’s safe to say that’s legit.
If you want to find out when your 2-factor code will be your favorite number, you can use this handy Python script.
Want to get emailed about new blog posts?
I post about once every few weeks on topics like
, language internals
, and recently, deep learning
Do you want to hire me? I’m available for engagements from 1 week to a few months. Hire me!