All posts by Max Spencer

Pico part II: What’s wrong with QR code password replacement schemes, and how to fix them!

Users don’t want to authenticate, they want to do useful or enjoyable things like sending emails, ordering groceries or playing games. To alleviate the burden of having to type passwords, Pico and several other schemes, such as SQRL and tiQR, let the user simply scan a QR code; then a cryptographic protocol authenticates the user behind the scenes and initiates a session. But users, unless they are on the move, may prefer to run their email or web browsing sessions on their full-size computer instead of on their  smartphone, whose user interface is relatively limited. Therefore they don’t want an authenticated session between their smartphone and the website but between their computer and the website, even if it’s the smartphone that scans the QR code.

In the original 2011 Pico paper (footnote 37), the website kept track of which “page impression” from a web browser was related to which Pico authentication by including a nonce in each login page QR code and having the Pico sign and return it as part of the authentication. Since then, within the Pico team, there has been much discussion of the so-called Page Impression Nonce or PIN, infamous both for the attacks it enables and its unfortunate, overloaded acronym. While other schemes may have called it something different, or not called it anything at all, it was always present in one form or another because they all used it to solve this same problem of linking browser sessions to authentications.

For example, in the SQRL system each QR code contains a URL, part of which is a random nonce (the PIN in this system). The SQRL app must sign and return this URL, thus associating the nonce with the app’s per-verifier public key. The web browser then starts its session by making another request which includes the URL (and thus the PIN) and gets back a session cookie.

So what’s the problem?

The problem with this kind of mechanism is that anyone else who learns the PIN can also make that second request, thus logging themselves in as the user who scanned the QR code. For example, a bad guy can obtain a QR code and its PIN from the login page of and display it somewhere, like the login page of, for a victim to scan. Now, assuming the victim had an account at, the attacker obtains a session that the victim unsuspectingly initiated with their smartphone.

Part of the problem is that QR codes are not human-readable. Some have suggested that a simple confirmation step (“Do you really want to login to”) might prevent such attacks, but we decided this wasn’t really good enough from a security or a usability perspective. We don’t want users to have to read the confirmation dialog and press the OK button every time they authenticate, and realistically they won’t, especially if they never normally do anything other than press OK.

Moreover, the confirmation step doesn’t help at all when the relaying of the QR code is combined with traditional phishing techniques. Consider receiving this email:

Subject: Urgent: Account security threat
Dear Customer

<compelling phishing mumbo jumbo>

To keep your account secure, please scan this QR code:

<login QR code with PIN known by the sender>

Kind regards,

Account security department

and if you oblige:

Do you really want to login to

Now the poor user thinks “Well yes, I do, that’s exactly what the account security team asked me to do” and even worse: “I’m definitely not being phished, I remember what those security people kept telling me about checking the address of the website before logging in”.

How to fix it

The solution we came up with is called session delegation. Instead of having a nonce in each QR code, which anyone can later trade-in for an authenticated session, we have the website return a session delegation token to the Pico (not the web browser) as part of the authentication protocol. The Pico may then delegate the session to the browser on the bigger computer by sending it this token, via a secure channel. (For further details see section 4.1 of our “lousy phish” paper.) The price to pay for this strategy is that it requires a channel from the Pico to the browser, which is much harder to provide than the one in the opposite direction (the visual “QR code” channel).

We made a prototype which used Bluetooth for the delegation channel but, because Bluetooth was sometimes difficult to set up and not universally available, we even thought about using an audio cable plugged into the microphone jack of the computer. However, we were still worried about the availability and usability of these hardware-based solutions. We did a lot of research into NAT and firewall traversal techniques (such as STUN and TURN) to see if we could use peer-to-peer IP connectivity, but this is not possible in all cases without a separate signalling channel. In our latest prototype we’re using a “rendezvous point”, which is a very simple relay server we’ve designed, running in the public Internet. The rendezvous point is the most universal and usable solution, but does come with some privacy concerns, namely that the untrusted rendezvous server gets to see the Pico/computer IP address pairs which are communicating. So we still allow privacy-conscious users to adopt less convenient alternatives if they’re willing to pay the price of setting up Bluetooth, connecting cables or changing their firewall/NAT settings, but we don’t impose that cost on everyone.

The drawback of this approach is that the user’s computer requires some Pico software to receive the delegation tokens, via the rendezvous point or whatever other channel. Having to install these hurts the “deployability” of the system as a whole and could render it completely useless in situations where installing new software is not possible. But another innovation, making the delegation token take the form of a URL, means there is always a last-resort fallback channel: manual transcription. If a Pico user can’t install the software on, or doesn’t want to trust, a particular computer, they can always still retype the token URL. There are other security concerns related to having URLs which will log your browser into someone else’s account, but you’ll have to read the lousy phish paper for a more detailed discussion of this topic.

There is clearly much interest in finding a replacement for passwords and several schemes (such as US 8261089 B2Snap2Pass, tiQR, US 20130219479 A1, QRAuth, SQRL) propose using QR codes. But upon close inspection, all of the above use a page impression nonce, making them vulnerable to session hijacking attacks. We rejected the idea that this could be solved simply by getting the user to carry out more checks and instead we propose an architectural fix which provides a more secure basis for the design of Pico.

For more information about Pico, have a look at our website, sign up to our mailing list and stay tuned for more Pico-related posts on Light Blue Touchpaper in the near future.