Daily Archives: 2010-07-27

Passwords in the wild, part I: the gap between theory and implementation

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.

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