How to store login details securely in the application config file

11 Nov 2016

It is very common in our day and age of interconnected integratedness for an application to be reaching out to external services such as email servers, databases etc. This creates a problem – you need to store usernames, passwords, access codes, API keys etc somewhere and mitigate the risks of that sensitive information either not being found or read by a wrong person.

One of the ways of securing such sensitive information is symmetric encryption - when same password/key is used for encryption and decryption. In this article, I want to show you how to read encrypted data from application config file in .NET, decrypt it, update it, encrypt and store it back into the configuration file.

Enter app.config

There’s a handful of classes in .NET that you can use to read and update application config file. Two things to be mindful of:

  • You need to add a reference to System.Configuration assembly to your project
  • You need to obtain runtime location of the program’s executable so you can load & update the config file

Storing encrypted values in app.config

Let’s have a look at the following code:

    // Load application configuration file so we can update it
    var configuration = ConfigurationManager.OpenExeConfiguration(Assembly.GetExecutingAssembly().Location);

    configuration.AppSettings.Settings["username"].Value = EncryptString("new username", configPassword);
    configuration.AppSettings.Settings["password"].Value = EncryptString("new password", configPassword);

    // Reload app config file

It loads application configuration file (using it’s location determined via Assembly.GetExecutingAssembly().Location), updates entries for "username" and "password", saves the file and reloads it.

Ignore EncryptString(...) function for now, just assume it does what it’s supposed to do - we’ll get back to it later.

Reading and decrypting values in app.config

Following code reads the values from the config and decrypts them:

    var encryptedUsername = ConfigurationManager.AppSettings["username"];
    var encryptedPassword = ConfigurationManager.AppSettings["password"];
    Console.WriteLine(string.Format("Encrypted username: {0}", encryptedUsername));
    Console.WriteLine(string.Format("Encrypted password: {0}", encryptedPassword));
    // Decrypt username & password and print to the console
    var decryptedUsername = DecryptString(encryptedUsername, configPassword);
    var decryptedPassword = DecryptString(encryptedPassword, configPassword);

    Console.WriteLine(string.Format("Decrypted username: {0}", decryptedUsername));
    Console.WriteLine(string.Format("Decrypted password: {0}", decryptedPassword));

Again, ignore the DecryptString(...) function for now… Actually, no, let’s talk encryption.

How encryption/decryption works

Examples above deliberately hide the cryptographic aspect of the problem so we can focus on retrieving and updating of config values. You can, however, get fully working crypto code by downloading the source code that goes with this article (see below for that).

The encryption/decryption functions use symmetric key (or password), meaning the same key is used for encryption and decryption. This can be a reasonable level of protection if you just want to ward off people that are not supposed to be poking around and sticking their noses into everything, however, this will probably not stop a serious attacker, capable of disassembling your source code that stores the password.

If you need a higher level of security, you should consider asymmetric keys and different crypto algorithms.

I have written a new article that shows how to use AWS Secrets Manager to retrieve secrets from a secure storage – check it out here, it’s a much more secure way of storing sensitive data: How to use AWS Secrets Manager to retrieve passwords in .Net Core apps

Source code

To download fully working and tested source code with this example head to this GitHub repo.

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