passtab - store passwords in your wallet

Here’s a quote from Bruce Schneier that essentially sums up the motivation for this post:

We’re all good at securing small pieces of paper. I recommend that people write their passwords down on a small piece of paper, and keep it with their other valuable small pieces of paper: in their wallet.

I recently read an excellent blog post by John Graham-Cumming in which he presents a elegant system for writing down your passwords using a Tabula Recta. I was inspired by this concept so I created a tool called passtab which aims to provide a light-weight system for managing passwords based on his idea. This post is about the general usage of passtab and presents some of the password management capabilities. This is not your grandmothers password manager so if you’re looking for a nice GUI point and click application that’s easy to use you can stop reading right here. This is for hardcore folks who enjoy looking up their passwords in archaic tablets invented by ancient cryptographers with last names like Trithemius. For the impatient, you can grab a copy of the latest version on github.

Introducing passtab

passtab is a light-weight system for managing passwords using a Tabula Recta. passtab has two main features: 1. generating random Tabula Recta’s in PDF format for printing and storing in your wallet 2. fetching passwords from the Tabula Recta (password managment). These features are independent and you can use passtab to only generate PDFs or optionally make use of the password management features. One unique benefit is the ability to have both an electronic and paper copy of your passwords. You can download the binary release of passtab at github here. Unpack the distribution and run ./bin/passtab --help for a list of options. If the startup shell script doesn’t work you can run java -jar lib/passtab-uber.jar --help. The following sections illustrate some use cases of passtab.

Generate a random Tabula Recta in PDF

passtab can generate random Tabula Recta’s in PDF format.

$ ./bin/passtab --format pdf --output passtab.pdf
Jun 12, 2011 11:16:29 AM org.qnot.passtab.PassTab generate
INFO: Generating a random Tabula Recta (might take a while)...
$ ls *.pdf

Here’s an example PDF generated from passtab. You can now print this PDF out and store in your wallet!

How to use the Tabula Recta

Here’s a simple example (taken directly from the README), suppose we have the following Tabula Recta:

     | A B C D E F G H I J K L M N 
   A | _ u } I ` } R ) a < L : a A 
   B | - o ( : p # O % . _ ; ' j L 
   C | w c ( c y 2 h y ~ N O * > w 
   D | o : R m L % V , d H r Y B j 
   E | 9 , < 0 J p a o ) O w 0 w # 
   F | C j i } i z 2 $ O R 5 @ T I 
   G | Q - E m 8 N c / + u W Y V > 
   H | , y } U Y i j i q w q c - 4 
   I | K j W H e ; I ? E 7 H v 2 + 
   J | g * 7 4 E } a h Y z < " : w 
   K | . _ } I / J k 1 a D ^ ; p K 
   L | ` < A L c z } } I P ? 4 y T 
   M | F D < 8 < 0 R B t 9 X o B 2 
   N | I r O E m o a + Y W w ; : 7

And suppose we want to get our password for logging into webmail at We decide to use the first and last letter of the domain name as the start row/column of the password and we want a password 8 characters in length. So we start at the intersection of ‘A’ and ‘E’ and read off 8 characters diagonally resulting in the password: '#h,)RWc

Defining a scheme for selecting the starting row/column for a given password is completely up to the user and can be as simple or as complex as one desires. The direction for reading the password is also up to the user to define (left, right, diagonally, etc.). See John Graham-Cumming’s excellent blog post for more examples.

This method is slightly more complex than just writing down your passwords on a sheet of paper but the added complexity offers some advantages:

  1. Can store all your passwords on a single sheet of paper
  2. If someone steals this sheet of paper they’ll have a harder time figuring out what your passwords are
  3. Allows you to use strong random passwords
  4. If you want to change your passwords just re-generate a new Tabula Recta. Your scheme for selecting passwords can stay the same

passtab makes no assumptions about how passwords are read nor does it know anything about your scheme (unless you configure it). Now that you don’t have to remember long random passwords anymore what do you need to remember when using a Tabula Recta? Well first, you need to come up with a method for finding the starting position for a given password. In the example above this can be as simple as using characters from a domain/host name. But the beauty is you can be as creative as you want. A scheme that works for most of your passwords would probably be ideal but you can certainly generate multiple Tabula Recta’s if you like. Once you have a way of coming up with a starting location you need to define a method for reading off the password. In passtab this is called a sequence. In the example above we simply read 8 characters diagonally. But again you can be creative here. You could read 8 characters diagonally skipping every 3rd character, etc. Lastly, you’ll need to remember what to do if you hit the edge of the Tabula Recta before the end of the password. For example, if you start at Z:Z and want to read 8 characters diagonally you can’t because you reached the end of the Tabula Recta. In passtab this is called a collision. In this case we could just continue reading following the edge.

Using the Tabula Recta allows you to make use of long secure random passwords and only have to remember three simple things. You also have all your passwords on a single sheet of paper that fits in your wallet.

Custom Alphabets

In passtab, a Tabula Recta consists of two alphabets. The header alphabet and the data alphabet. The header alphabet is used for the row and column heading of the Tabula Recta and forms the basis for finding the starting location of the passwords. The data alphabet is used to generate the contents of the Tabula Recta and passtab will randomly pick characters from this alphabet using a cryptographically secure random number generator. By default, passtab uses a header alphabet of 0-9A-Z and a data alphabet consisting of all printable ASCII characters. It’s important to keep in mind that the data alphabet directly effects the entropy of your passwords. passtab allows you to customize these alphabets allowing you to generate any kind of Tabula Recta, for example:

$ ./bin/passtab -b A,B,C,D -a 'a,b,c,d,1,2,3,4,!,@,#'
Jun 12, 2011 10:24:26 PM org.qnot.passtab.PassTab generate
INFO: Generating a random Tabula Recta (might take a while)...
  A B C D 
A d 1 @ 4 
B c 4 @ 2 
C b 3 3 ! 
D 1 a @ 4 

Here’s a Tabula Recta using greek symbols as the header alphabet (here’s the example PDF):

$ ./bin/passtab -b 'Σ,Τ,Π,ρ,ϋ,ψ' -a 'a,b,c,d,1,2,3,4,!,@,#'
Jun 12, 2011 11:26:00 PM org.qnot.passtab.PassTab generate
INFO: Generating a random Tabula Recta (might take a while)...
  Σ Τ Π ρ ϋ ψ 
Σ 1 2 1 d d c 
Τ 1 2 b b @ c 
Π 1 # c 3 2 @ 
ρ 4 2 d 2 @ 3 
ϋ 2 3 b 1 ! b 
ψ d @ # c ! a

Password Management

So this is all well and great, but in reality it can be a huge pain to have to look up your webmail password in a Tabula Recta that’s on a sheet of paper in your wallet every time you login. For this reason, passtab has some optional features to help read passwords from the Tabula Recta. This allows you to have both a hard copy of the Tabula Recta in your wallet and an electronic version stored on your hard drive for quick access to your passwords. This obviously comes with some security considerations and care must be taken to protect the passtab database as you would any ssh private key for example. If someone got a hold of the passtab database file they could brute force your Tabula Recta. I ended up creating an encrypted thumb drive and store my passtab configuration and database files on it. You could also use gpg to encrypt it or any other method to protect it from the bad guys. This next section discusses the password management features of passtab.

First some definitions:

Generate a Tabula Recta in PDF and save to a passtab database

passtab can generate a Tabula Recta in PDF along with storing it in a passtab database. The passtab database is stored in JSON format and can be easily accessed outside of passtab (any language that can read JSON files). Again, you’ll want to store that JSON file someplace safe. For example:

$ ./bin/passtab --dbsave --name mypasstab
Jun 12, 2011 10:48:33 PM org.qnot.passtab.PassTab generate
INFO: Generating a random Tabula Recta (might take a while)...
$ ls mypasstab.*
mypasstab.json  mypasstab.pdf

Reading passwords from the passtab database

Once we’ve created our passtab database we can now fetch passwords by telling passtab the starting location and the sequence to read. For example, suppose we want to read a password starting at row ‘B’ and column ‘N’ and we want a password 10 characters in length reading diagonally:

$ ./bin/passtab -i mypasstab.json --getpass B:N --sequence 9:SE

Copy the password to the clipboard using xclip:

$ ./bin/passtab -i mypasstab.json --getpass B:N --sequence 9:SE --chomp | xclip

We used 9:SE as our sequence because passtab includes the character at the start location in the password. If we didn’t want to include this character we can optionally skip it like so:

$ ./bin/passtab -i mypasstab.json --getpass B:N --sequence 10:SE --skipstart

Define a list of directions to try in the event of a collision. This will try the directions N,S,E,W in order until we can move again. Here we start at Z:Z and can’t move SE (diagonally) so we try N (up) which works so we move N (up) until we hit another collision:

$ ./bin/passtab -i mypasstab.json --getpass Z:Z --sequence 9:SE --collision N,S,E,W


This post introduced a new tool called passtab for managing passwords using a Tabula Recta. I’m sure it has plenty of bugs so use at your own risk and if by chance you find it somewhat useful I’d be very interested in any feedback.