How password hashing works on Linux

Conceptual image of a password amid hexadecimal code.
Matejmo / Getty Images

You may know that passwords are hashed on Linux systems, and the hashes are stored in the restricted access /etc/shadow file. But did you know that you can also determine the hash method that was used and report the number of days since a password was last changed from this file as well?

To look at a user record in the /etc/shadow file, run a command like this:

$ sudo grep nemo /etc/shadow

You should see a line that looks something like this:


In spite of how long that line is, it's quite easy to parse. The first two fields in the lines of this colon-separated file store:

  • the username (nemo)
  • the password hash (including the hashing method used) in a $id$salt$hashed format

That $6$ portion of this string represents the hashing algorithm used.

  • $1$ means MD5
  • $2a$ means Blowfish
  • $2y$ means Blowfish
  • $5$ means SHA-256
  • $6$ means SHA-512

The major portion of nemo's /etc/shadow file entry represents the password hash. The following numeric fields (18698:7:90:7:::) represent:

  • the date of the last password change in a "days since the epoch" format (18698)
  • the minimum required days between password changes (7)
  • the maximum allowed days between password changes (90)
  • the number of days in advance to display password expiration message (7)
  • the number of days after password expiration to disable the account (not set above)
  • the account expiration date (not set above)
  • a reserve field (not set above)

To find today's date in the "days since the epoch" form, you can run a command like that shown in the alias below that divides the "seconds since the beginning of the Unix epoch" by 86,400 (the number of seconds in a day).

$ alias epoch_date="echo $(( $(date +%s) / 86400 ))"
$ epoch_date 18855

You can then take that first field shown in the numeric fields (18698) of the /etc/shadow file and determine how many days ago the password was changed. In this example, it was 157 days ago.

$ expr 18855 - 18698

You can also determine the date the password was last changed by using the chage command that grabs the data from the /etc/shadow file and reports that date along with other password stats.

$ sudo chage -l nemo
Last password change                                    : Mar 12, 2021
Password expires                                        : Mar 12, 2022
Password inactive                                       : never
Account expires                                         : never
Minimum number of days between password change          : 7
Maximum number of days between password change          : 90
Number of days of warning before password expires       : 7


The /etc/shadow file stores a lot of important settings for passwords on Linux systems, including the algorithm used to create the password hashes and the password last set and expiration dates.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.