Strange cryptographic decisions in Ansible vault

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

I wrote about some useful changes to ansible-vault in Ansible 2 in an earlier post. Unfortunately, another significant change to the vault internals was rejected for Ansible 2.

Vault cryptography

The VaultAES256 class implements encryption and decryption. It uses sensible building blocks: PBKDF2 for key generation with a random salt, AES-CTR for encryption, and HMAC-SHA-256 for authentication (used in encrypt-then-mac fashion). This is a major improvement over the earlier VaultAES class, which used homebrew key generation and an SHA-256 digest alone for “verification”.

Nevertheless, the code has some embarrassing oversights. They are not vulnerabilities, but they show that the code was written with… rather less familiarity with cryptography than one might wish:

Finally, the ciphertext is passed through hexlify() twice, thereby inflating it to 4x the size (instead of using, say, Base64). This is the least significant and yet the most annoying problem.

The most visible effects of the over-enthusiastic PBKDF2 use were mitigated by a pull request to use an optimised PBKDF2 implementation. This reduced the startup time by an order of magnitude for setups that loaded many vault-encrypted files from group_vars and host_vars.

All of these problems were solved by PR #12130, which saw several rounds of changes and was slated for inclusion in Ansible 2, but was eventually rejected by the maintainers because there wasn't “anyone in-house to review it for security problems and it's late to be adding it for v2”.

Other changes that didn't make it

A couple of other often-requested Vault changes fell by the wayside en route to Ansible 2:

Many people left +1 comments on Github to indicate their support for these features. I hope someone wants them enough to work on them for v2.1, and that they have better luck getting this work merged than I did.