Posts filed under 'Authentication

Dec 7, '12

It’s not unusual for banks to send emails which are confusingly similar to phishing, but this recent one I received from Virgin Money is exceptionally bad. It tells customers that the bank (Northern Rock) is changing domain names from their usual one ( to and customers should use their usual security credentials to log into the new domain name. Mail clients will often be helpful and change the into a link.

This message is exactly what phishers would like customers to fall for. While this email was legitimate (albeit very unwise), a criminal could follow up with an email saying that savings customers should access their account at (which is currently available for registration). Virgin Money have trained their customers to accept such emails as legitimate, which is a very dangerous lesson to teach.

It would have been safer to not do the rebranding, but if that’s considered essential for commercial reasons, then customers should have been told to continue accessing the site at their usual domain name, and redirected them (via HTTPS) to the new site. It would mean keeping hold of the Northern Rock domain names for the foreseeable future, but that is almost certainly what Virgin Money are planning anyway.

[larger version]

Nov 29, '12

(post UPDATED with new job opening)

I am delighted to announce a job opening in the Cambridge Security Group. Thanks to generous funding from the European Research Council I am in a position to recruit several post-doc research associates to work with me on the Pico project, whose ambitious aim is ultimately to liberate the world from the annoyance and insecurity of passwords, which everyone hates.

In previous posts I hinted at why it’s going to be quite difficult (Oakland paper) and what my vision for Pico is (SPW paper, USENIX invited talk). What I want to do, now that I have the investment to back my idea, is to assemble an interdisciplinary team of the best possible people, with backgrounds not just in security and software but crucially in psychology, interaction design and embedded hardware. We’ll design and build a prototype, build a batch of them and then have real people (not geeks) try them out and tell us why they’re all wrong. And then design and build a better one and try it out again. And iterate as necessary, always driven by what works for real humans, not technologists. I expect that the final Pico will be rather different, and a lot better, than the one I envisaged in 2011. Oh, and by the way, to encourage universal uptake, I already promised I won’t patent any of it.

As I wrote in the papers above, I don’t expect we’ll see the end of passwords anytime soon, nor that Pico will displace passwords as soon as it exists. But I do want to be ready with a fully worked out solution for when we finally collectively decide that we’ve had enough.

Imagine we could restart from zero and do things right. Have you got a relevant PhD or are about to get one? Are you keen to use it to change the world for the better? Are you best of the best, and have the track record to prove it? Are you willing to the first member of my brilliant interdisciplinary team? Are you ready for the intellectually challenging and stimulating environment of one of the top research universities in the world? Are you ready to be given your own real challenges and responsibilities, and the authority to be in charge of your work? Then great, I want to hear from you and here’s what you need to do to apply (post UPDATED with new opening).

(By the way: I’m off to Norway next week for passwords^12, a lively 3-day conference organized by Per Thorsheim and totally devoted to nothing else than passwords.)

Sep 20, '12

There was a public outcry followed by ICO “making enquiries” when Troy Hunt published a post about Tesco’s plaintext password reminders exactly a month ago.

I wanted to use the reference for a text I was writing last week when someone asked me about online accounts of Companies House. At that moment I said to myself, wait a second. Companies House sends plaintext reminders as well. How strange. I sent a link to a short post to ComputerWorld. They in turn managed to get a statement from Companies House that includes:

“… although it is [Companies House] certified to the ISO 27001 standard and adheres to the government’s Security Policy Framework, it will carry out a review of its systems in order to establish whether there is a threat to companies’ confidential information.” (more…)

Sep 4, '12

Yesterday, I took a critical look at the difficulty of interpreting progress in password cracking. Today I’ll make a broader argument that even if we had good data to evaluate cracking efficiency, recent progress isn’t a major threat the vast majority of web passwords. Efficient and powerful cracking tools are useful in some targeted attack scenarios, but just don’t change the economics of industrial-scale attacks against web accounts. The basic mechanics of web passwords mean highly-efficient cracking doesn’t offer much benefit in untargeted attacks. (more…)

Sep 3, '12

Password cracking has returned to the news, with a thorough Ars Technica article on the increasing potency of cracking tools and the third Crack Me If You Can contest at this year’s DEFCON. Taking a critical view, I’ll argue that it’s not clear exactly how much password cracking is improving and that the cracking community could do a much better job of measuring progress.

Password cracking can be evaluated on two nearly independent axes: power (the ability to check a large number of guesses quickly and cheaply using optimized software, GPUs, FPGAs, and so on) and efficiency (the ability to generate large lists of candidate passwords accurately ranked by real-world likelihood using sophisticated models). It’s relatively simple to measure cracking power in units of hashes evaluated per second or hashes per second per unit cost. There are details to account for, like the complexity of the hash being evaluated, but this problem is generally similar to cryptographic brute force against unknown (random) keys and power is generally increasing exponentially in tune with Moore’s law. The move to hardware-based cracking has enabled well-documented orders-of-magnitude speedups.

Cracking efficiency, by contrast, is rarely measured well. Useful data points, some of which I curated in my PhD thesis, consist of the number of guesses made against a given set of password hashes and the proportion of hashes which were cracked as a result. Ideally many such points should be reported, allowing us to plot a curve showing the marginal returns as additional guessing effort is expended. Unfortunately results are often stated in terms of the total number of hashes cracked (here are some examples). Sometimes the runtime of a cracking tool is reported, which is an improvement but conflates efficiency with power. (more…)

Aug 6, '12

With the launch of Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion), Apple has introduced a volume encryption mechanism known as FileVault 2.

During the past year Joachim Metz, Felix Grobert and I have been analysing this encryption mechanism. We have identified most of the components in FileVault 2’s architecture and we have also built an open source tool that can read volumes encrypted with FileVault 2. This tool can be useful to forensic investigators (who know the encryption password or recovery token) that need to recover some files from an encrypted volume but cannot trust or load the MAC OS that was used to encrypt the data. We have also made an analysis of the security of FileVault 2.

A few weeks ago we have made public this paper on eprint describing our work. The tool to recover data from encrypted volumes is available here.

Jun 6, '12

UPDATE 2012-06-07: LinkedIn has confirmed the leak is real, that they “recently” switched to salted passwords (so the data is presumably an out-of-date backup) and that they’re resetting passwords of users involved in the leak. There is still no credible information about if the hackers involved have the account names or the rest of the site’s passwords. If so, this incident could still have serious security consequences for LinkedIn users. If not, it’s still a major black eye for LinkedIn, though they deserve credit for acting quickly to minimise the damage.

LinkedIn appears to have been the latest website to suffer a large-scale password leak. Perhaps due to LinkedIn’s relatively high profile, it’s made major news very quickly even though LinkedIn has neither confirmed nor denied the reports. Unfortunately the news coverage has badly muddled the facts. All I’ve seen is a list 6,458,020 unsalted SHA-1 hashes floating around. There are no account names associated with the hashes. Most importantly the leaked file has no repeated hashes. All of the coverage appears to miss this fact. Most likely, the leaker intentionally ran it through ‘uniq’ in addition to removing account info to limit the damage. Also interestingly, 3,521,180 (about 55%) of the hashes have the first 20 bits over-written with 0. Among these, 670,785 are otherwise equal to another hash, meaning that they are actually repeats of the same password stored in a slightly different format (LinkedIn probably just switched formats at some point in the past). So there are really 5,787,235 unique hashes leaked. (more…)

Jun 1, '12

Over a year ago, we blogged about a bug at Gawker which replaced all non-ASCII characters in passwords with ‘?’ prior to checking. Along with Rubin Xu and others I’ve investigated issues surrounding passwords, languages, and character encoding throughout the past year. This should be easy: websites using UTF-8 can accept any password and hash it into a standard format regardless of the writing system being used. Instead though, as we report a new paper which I presented last week at the Web 2.0 Security and Privacy workshop in San Francisco, passwords still localise poorly both because websites are buggy and users have been trained to type ASCII passwords only. This has broad implications for passwords’ role as a “universal” authentication mechanism. (more…)

May 24, '12

I’ve written quite a few posts about passwords, mainly focusing on poor implementations, bugs and leaks from large websites. I’ve also written on the difficulty of guessing PINs, multi-word phrases and personal knowledge questions. How hard are passwords to guess? How does guessing difficulty compare between different groups of users? How does it compare to potential replacement technologies? I’ve been working on the answers to these questions for much of the past two years, culminating in my PhD dissertation on the subject and a new paper at this year’s IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (Oakland) which I presented yesterday. My approach is simple: don’t assume any semantic model for the distribution of passwords (Markov models and probabilistic context-free-grammars have been proposed, amongst others), but instead learn the distribution of passwords with lots of data and use this to estimate the efficiency of an hypothetical guesser with perfect knowledge. It’s been a long effort requiring new mathematical techniques and the largest corpus of passwords ever collected for research. My results provide some new insight on the nature of password selection and a good framework for future research on authentication using human-chosen distributions of secrets. (more…)

May 22, '12

As any computer user already knows, passwords are a usability disaster: you are basically told to “pick something you can’t remember, then don’t write it down“, which is worse than impossible if you must also use a different password for every account. Moreover, security-wise, passwords can be shoulder-surfed, keylogged, eavesdropped, brute-forced and phished. Notable industry insiders have long predicted their demise. Over the past couple of decades, dozens of alternative schemes have been proposed. Yet here we are in 2012, still using more and more password-protected accounts every year. Why? Can’t we do any better? Don’t the suggested replacements offer any improvements?

The paper I am about to present at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy in San Francisco (Oakland 2012), grown out of the “related work” section of my earlier Pico paper and written with coauthors Joe Bonneau, Cormac Herley and Paul van Oorschot, offers a structured and well-researched answer that, according to peer review, “should have considerable influence on the research community”. It offers, as its subtitle says, a framework for comparative evaluation of password replacement schemes.

We build a large 2D matrix. Across the columns we define a broad spectrum of 25 benefits that a password replacement scheme might potentially offer, starting with USABILITY benefits, such as being easy to learn, or not requiring a memory effort from the user, and SECURITY benefits, such as resilience to shoulder-surfing or to phishing. These two broad categories, and the tension between them, are relatively well-understood: it’s easy to provide more usability by offering less security and vice versa. But we also introduce a third category, DEPLOYABILITY, that measures how easy it would be to deploy the scheme on a global scale, taking into account such benefits as cost per user, compatibility with deployed web infrastructure and accessibility to people with disabilities.

Next, in the rows, we identify 35 representative schemes covering 11 broad categories, from password managers through federated authentication to hardware tokens and biometric schemes. We then carefully rate each scheme individually, with various cross-checks to preserve accuracy and consistency, assessing for each benefit whether the given scheme offers, almost offers or does not offer the benefit. The resulting colourful matrix allows readers to compare features at a glance and to recognize general patterns that would otherwise be easily missed.

Contrary to the optimistic claims of scheme authors, who often completely ignore some evaluation criteria when they assert that their scheme is a definite improvement, none of the examined schemes does better than passwords on every benefit when rated on all 25 benefits of this objective benchmark.

From the concise overview offered by the summary matrix we distil key high level insights, such as why we are still using passwords in 2012 and are probably likely to continue to do so for quite a while.

How can we make progress? It has been observed that many people repeat the mistakes of history because they didn’t understand the history book. In the field of password replacements, it looks like a good history book still needed to be written! As pointed out during peer review, our work will be a foundational starting point for further research in the area and a useful sanity check for future password replacement proposals.

An extended version of the paper is available as a tech report.


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