Effect of Clock Skew on OATH-TOTP Passcodes

While writing my post on Yubikey Manager and PowerShell: TOTP Credentials, I stumbled across the vampire “byte” (sorry) of OATH time-based one time passcodes (TOTP): clock skew or time drift.

This got me thinking about the impact of clock skew on the validity of OATH-TOTP codes. I modeled it (script/Gist linked below) and confirmed my theory that time drift has an incremental and linear effect on the validity of the resulting one time passcode.

With a 6 digit passcode and 30-second window, each second of skew introduces a 3.33% chance that the generated passcode will be invalid at any given time. More generally:

Odds (%) of bad OTP = |[clock skew in seconds]| * (100/[window length in seconds])

Or, the absolute value of clock skew in seconds, multiplied by the quantity 100 divided by the TOTP window length in seconds.

If your clock is 3 seconds off (using a standard 6 digit code with 30 second window), the probability that your OTP will be invalid is 10%. At 15 seconds off, the probability increases to 50%. When your time drift is greater than the window length, the generated TOTP code will be invalid 100% the time.

Effect of clock skew on OATH-TOTP passcodes

I am not incredibly proud of it, but I assembled and used this test script to generate random OATH-TOTP secrets and test the resulting one-time passcode with varying levels of time drift. My script relies heavily on the excellent work by ecspresso and jonfriesen surrounding TOTP implementation in PowerShell.

This ended up being a fun and informative exercise. I am hopeful someone besides me finds it interesting and useful!