This is the fourth and final part in a series on password implementations at real websites, based on my paper at WEIS 2010 with Sören Preibusch.
Given the problems associated with passwords on the web outlined in the past few days, for years academics have searched for new technology to replace passwords. This thinking can at times be counter-productive, as no silver bullets have yet materialised and this has distracted attention away from fixing the most pressing problems associated with passwords. Currently, the trendiest proposed solution is to use federated identity protocols to greatly reduce the number of websites which must collect passwords (as we’ve argued would be a very positive step). Much focus has been given to OpenID, yet it is still struggling to gain widespread adoption. OpenID was deployed at less than 3% of websites we observed, with only Mixx and LiveJournal giving it much prominence.
Nevertheless, we optimistically feel that real changes will happen in the next few years, as password authentication on the web seems to be becoming increasingly unsustainable due to the increasing scale and interconnectivity of websites collecting passwords. We actually think we are already in the early stages of a password revolution, just not of the type predicted by academia.
Continue reading Passwords in the wild, part IV: the future
This is the third part in a series on password implementations at real websites, based on my paper at WEIS 2010 with Joseph Bonneau.
In our analysis of 150 password deployments online, we observed a surprising diversity of implementation choices. Whilst sites can be ranked by the overall security of their password scheme, there is a vast middle group in which sites make seemingly incongruous security decisions. We also found almost no evidence of commonality in implementations. Examining the details of Web forms (variable names, etc.) and the format of automated emails, we found little evidence that sites are re-using a common code base. This lack of consistency in technical choices suggests that standards and guidelines could improve security.
Numerous RFCs concern themselves with one-time passwords and other relatively sophisticated authentication protocols. Yet, traditional password-based authentication remains the most prevalent authentication protocol on the Internet, as the International Telecommunication Union–itself a United Nations specialized agency to standardise telecommunications on a worldwide basis–observes in their ITU-T Recommendation X.1151, “Guideline on secure password-based, authentication protocol with key exchange.” Client PKI has not seen wide-spread adoption and tokens or smart-cards are prohibitively cost-inefficient or inconvenient for most websites. While passwords have many shortcomings, it is essential deploy them as carefully and securely as possible. Formal standards and guidelines of best practices are essential to help developers.
Continue reading Passwords in the wild, part III: password standards for the Web
This is the second part in a series on password implementations at real websites, based on my paper at WEIS 2010 with Sören Preibusch.
As we discussed yesterday, dubious practices abound within real sites’ password implementations. Password insecurity isn’t only due to random implementation mistakes, though. When we scored sites’ passwords implementations on a 10-point aggregate scale it became clear that a wide spectrum of implementation quality exists. Many web authentication giants (Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google, LiveJournal, Microsoft, MySpace, Yahoo!) scored near the top, joined by a few unlikely standouts (IKEA, CNBC). At the opposite end were a slew of lesser-known merchants and news websites. Exploring the factors which lead to better security confirms the basic tenets of security economics: sites with more at stake tend to do better. However, doing better isn’t enough. Given users’ well-documented tendency to re-use passwords, the varying levels of security may represent a serious market failure which is undermining the security of password-based authentication.
Continue reading Passwords in the wild, part II: failures in the market
Sören Preibusch and I have finalised our in-depth report on password practices in the wild, The password thicket: technical and market failures in human authentication on the web, presented in Boston last month for WEIS 2010. The motivation for our report was a lack of technical research into real password deployments. Passwords have been studied as an authentication mechanism quite intensively for the last 30 years, but we believe ours was the first large study into how Internet sites actually implement them. We studied 150 sites, including the most visited overall sites plus a random sample of mid-level sites. We signed up for free accounts with each site, and using a mixture of scripting and patience, captured all visible aspects of password deployment, from enrolment and login to reset and attacks.
Our data (which is now publicly available) gives us an interesting picture into the current state of password deployment. Because the dataset is huge and the paper is quite lengthy, we’ll be discussing our findings and their implications from a series of different perspectives. Today, we’ll focus on the preventable mistakes. In academic literature, it’s assumed that passwords will be encrypted during transmission, hashed before storage, and attempts to guess usernames or passwords will be throttled. None of these is widely true in practice.
Continue reading Passwords in the wild, part I: the gap between theory and implementation
We have a new paper on the strategic vulnerability created by the plan to replace Britain’s 47 million meters with smart meters that can be turned off remotely. The energy companies are demanding this facility so that customers who don’t pay their bills can be switched to prepayment tariffs without the hassle of getting court orders against them. If the Government buys this argument – and I’m not convinced it should – then the off switch had better be closely guarded. You don’t want the nation’s enemies to be able to turn off the lights remotely, and eliminating that risk could just conceivably be a little bit more complicated than you might at first think. (This paper follows on from our earlier paper On the security economics of electricity metering at WEIS 2010.)