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Secure Programming Cookbook for C and C++ by Matt Messier, John Viega

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4.9. Using Salts, Nonces, and Initialization Vectors


You want to use an algorithm that requires a salt, a nonce or an initialization vector (IV). You need to understand the differences among these three things and figure out how to select good specimens of each.


There’s a lot of terminology confusion, and the following Section 4.9.3 contains our take on it. Basically, salts and IVs should be random, and nonces are usually sequential, potentially with a random salt as a component, if there is room. With sequential nonces, you need to ensure that you never repeat a single {key, nonce} pairing.

To get good random values, use a well-seeded, cryptographically strong pseudo-random number generator (see the appropriate recipes in Chapter 11). Using that, get the necessary number of bits. For salt, 64 bits is sufficient. For an IV, get one of the requisite size.


Salts, nonces, and IVs are all one-time values used in cryptography that don’t need to be secret, but still lead to additional security. It is generally assumed that these values are visible to attackers, even if it is sometimes possible to hide them. At the very least, the security of cryptographic algorithms and protocols should not depend on the secrecy of such values.


We try to be consistent with respect to this terminology in the book. However, in the real world, even among cryptographers there’s a lot of inconsistency. Therefore, be sure to follow the directions in the documentation for whatever primitive you’re using.


Salt is random data that helps protect against dictionary and other precomputation attacks. Generally, salt is used in password-based systems and is concatenated to the front of a password before processing. Password systems often use a one-way hash function to turn a password into an “authenticator.” In the simplest such system, if there were no salt, an attacker could build a dictionary of common passwords and just look up the original password by authenticator.

The use of salt means that the attacker would have to produce a totally separate dictionary for every possible salt value. If the salt is big enough, it essentially makes dictionary attacks infeasible. However, the attacker can generally still try to guess every password without using a stronger protocol. For a discussion of various password-based authentication technologies, see Recipe 8.1.

If the salt isn’t chosen at random, certain dictionaries will be more likely than others. For this reason, salt is generally expected to be random.

Salt can be generated using the techniques discussed in Chapter 11.


Nonces [2] are bits of data often input to cryptographic protocols and algorithms, including many message authentication codes and some encryption modes. Such values should only be used a single time with any particular cryptographic key. In fact, reuse generally isn’t prohibited, but the odds of reuse need to be exceptionally low. That is, if you have a nonce that is very large compared to the number of times you expect to use it (e.g., the nonce is 128 bits, and you don’t expect to use it more than 232 times), it is sufficient to choose nonces using a cryptographically strong pseudo-random number generator.

Sequential nonces have a few advantages over random nonces:

  • You can easily guarantee that nonces are not repeated. Note, though, that if the possible nonce space is large, this is not a big concern.

  • Many protocols already send a unique sequence number for each packet, so one can save space in transmitted messages.

  • The sequential ordering of nonces can be used to prevent replay attacks, but only if you actually check to ensure that the nonce is always incrementing. That is, if each message has a nonce attached to it, you can tell whether the message came in the right order, by looking at the nonce and making sure its value is always incrementing.

However, randomness in a nonce helps prevent against classes of attacks that amortize work across multiple keys in the same system.

We recommend that nonces have both a random portion and a sequential portion. Generally, the most significant bytes should be random, and the final 6 to 8 bytes should be sequential. An 8-byte counter can accommodate 264 messages without the counter’s repeating, which should be more than big enough for any system.

If you use both a nonce and a salt, you can select a single random part for each key you use. The nonce on the whole has to be unique, but the salt can remain fixed for the lifetime of the key; the counter ensures that the nonce is always unique. In such a nonce, the random part is said to be a “salt.” Generally, it’s good to have four or more bytes of salt in a nonce.

If you decide to use only a random nonce, remember that the nonce needs to be changed after each message, and you lose the ability to prevent against capture-replay attacks.

The random portion of a nonce can be generated using the techniques discussed in Chapter 11. Generally, you will have a fixed-size buffer into which you place the nonce, and you will then set the remaining bytes to zero, incrementing them after each message is sent. For example, if you have a 16-byte nonce with an 8-byte counter in the least significant bytes, you might use the following code:

/* This assumes a 16-byte nonce where the last 8 bytes represent the counter! */
void increment_nonce(unsigned char *nonce) {
  if (!++nonce[15]) if (!++nonce[14]) if (!++nonce[13]) if (!++nonce[12]) 
    if (!++nonce[11]) if (!++nonce[10]) if (!++nonce[9]) if (!++nonce[8]) {
      /* If you get here, you're out of nonces.  This really shouldn't happen
       * with an 8-byte nonce, so often you'll see: if (!++nonce[9]) ++nonce[8];

Note that the this code can be more efficient if we do a 32-bit increment, but then there are endian-ness issues that make portability more difficult.


If sequential nonces are implemented correctly, they can help thwart capture relay attacks (see Recipe 6.1).

Initialization vectors (IVs)

The term initialization vector (IV) is the most widely used and abused of the three terms we’ve been discussing. IV and nonce are often used interchangeably. However, a careful definition does differentiate between these two concepts. For our purposes, an IV is a nonce with an additional requirement: it must be selected in a nonpredictable way. That is, the IV can’t be sequential; it must be random. One popular example in which a real IV is required for maximizing security is when using the CBC encryption mode (see Recipe 5.6).

The big downside to an IV, as compared to a nonce, is that an IV does not afford protection against capture-replay attacks—unless you’re willing to remember every IV that has ever been used, which is not a good solution. To ensure protection against such attacks when using an IV, the higher-level protocol must have its own notion of sequence numbers that get checked in order.

Another downside is that there is generally more data to send. Systems that use sequential nonces can often avoid sending the nonce, as it can be calculated from the sequence number already sent with the message.

Initialization vectors can be generated using the techniques discussed in Chapter 11.

[2] In the UK, “nonce” is slang for a child sex offender. However, this term is widespread in the cryptographic world, so we use it.

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