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Can I recover my MSN Hotmail password rather than reset it?
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I've forgotten my MSN Hotmail password and I could easily reset it, as I DO still have access to my alternate email account that I provided and I DO remember the answer to my secret question.

However, it is imperative that I do not change/reset the password, but instead recover the old one. It's very complicated, but basically I have used the same password for several things and I cannot afford to lose it.

What I am really asking is "Is it possible to merely recover my MSN password rather than reset it??"

I've been getting the question above off and on for years. Even though many requests are possibly legitimate, I can't tell which ones are, and thus have to address them as password hacking attempts. In other words, I have to ignore them.

But it dawns on me that there are some valuable lessons to be learned here.

Once again, I'll cut to the chase and just tell you that no, there's no way to get your existing password back from MSN Hotmail or from any security-minded service provider, free or not.

Care to know why?

They don't know your password.

You probably think I'm nuts, but I'm absolutely 100% serious. A properly secure authentication scheme, such as that we would hope is used by services such as Hotmail, does not store your password. Instead, they store a one-way encrypted or hashed form of your password. When you login they encrypt whatever password you enter using the same algorithm, and if the encrypted value matches the encrypted value they have stored for you, then you must have entered the correct password.

"... there's no way to get your existing password back ..."

Let's say your password is:

Pass!werd

Not an unreasonable password, hard to guess, short and probably easy-ish to remember.

Using a hashing function (geeks: I'm using SHA1 in my example, but there are many approaches), that password is transformed into:

187483f86b7c516e35dc52aa30797f44e73ec734

Looks nothing like your password, right? However there are two incredibly important characteristics of this transformation:

  • The chances of any other password generating exactly the same encrypted string are infinitesimally small.
  • There's no way to go backwards.

Re-read that second point. It means that in the example above there's no way given the "187483f86b7c516e35dc52aa30797f44e73ec734" to figure out that the password you used to create it was "Pass!werd".

The result? There's no way for the service to tell you what you password is, because they just don't know. They'll know the value that it encrypts into, but that cannot be used to reverse-calculate what the password actually is.

Why?

You're probably asking yourself why do services go through this messy encryption stuff ... why not just store the password directly? Wouldn't that be easier? It would certainly allow them to tell me what my password is rather than forcing me to choose a new one.

In a word: security.

If someone hacks the service and somehow steals the user database, what do they have? If they only have encrypted passwords, they have nothing of any use. As a result, it's considered "best practice" from a security perspective to never store the actual password, but rather store an encrypted token derived from the password instead.

So how do password resets work? It's the one time that the system briefly knows your password, because they:

  • pick a new password for you
  • encrypt it
  • save the encrypted password in their database
  • email the UNencrypted password to the email address of record

But even then, note how they did not save the unencrypted password. They emailed it to you and then promptly "forgot" it, remembering only the encrypted form.

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