Header key is used to encrypt and decrypt the encrypted area of the VeraCrypt volume header (for
system encryption, of the keydata area), which contains the master key and other data (see the sections
and VeraCrypt Volume Format Specification). In volumes created by VeraCrypt 5.0 or later (and for
system encryption), the area is encrypted in XTS mode (see the section
Modes of Operation). The method that VeraCrypt uses to generate the header key and the secondary header key (XTS mode) is PBKDF2, specified in PKCS #5 v2.0; see
512-bit salt is used, which means there are 2512
keys for each password. This significantly decreases vulnerability to 'off-line' dictionary/'rainbow table' attacks (pre-computing all the keys for a dictionary of passwords is very difficult when a salt is used) . The salt consists of random values generated by the VeraCrypt random number generator
during the volume creation process. The header key derivation function is based on HMAC-SHA-512, HMAC-RIPEMD-160, or HMAC-Whirlpool (see [8, 9, 20, 22]) – the user selects which. The length of the derived key does not depend on the size of the output of the underlying hash function. For example, a header key for the AES-256 cipher is always 256 bits long even if HMAC-RIPEMD-160 is used (in XTS mode, an additional 256-bit secondary header key is used; hence, two 256-bit keys are used for AES-256 in total). For more information, refer to . A large number of iterations of the key derivation function have to be performed to derive a header key, which increases the time necessary to perform an exhaustive search for passwords (i.e., brute force attack) .
VeraCrypt uses 327661 iterations for the HMAC-RIPEMD-160 derivation function for system partition encryption (boot encryption). For standard containers and other partitions, 655331 iterations of HMAC-RIPEMD-160 and 500000 iterations of HMAC-SHA-512 and HMAC-Whirlpool are used.
Header keys used by ciphers in a cascade are mutually independent, even though they are derived from a single password (to which keyfiles may have been applied). For example, for the AES-Twofish-Serpent cascade, the header key derivation function is instructed to derive a 768-bit encryption key from a given password (and, for XTS mode, in addition, a 768-bit
header key from the given password). The generated 768-bit header key is then split into three 256-bit keys (for XTS mode, the secondary
header key is split into three 256-bit keys too, so the cascade actually uses six 256-bit keys in total), out of which the first key is used by Serpent, the second key is used by Twofish, and the third by AES (in addition, for XTS mode, the first secondary key is used by Serpent, the second secondary key is used by Twofish, and the third secondary key by AES). Hence, even when an adversary has one of the keys, he cannot use it to derive the other keys, as there is no feasible method to determine the password from which the key was derived (except for brute force attack mounted on a weak password).