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Why [Insert Thing Here] Is Not a Password Killer (troyhunt.com)
213 points by nikbackm on Nov 5, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 271 comments

It is not just that everyone knows how passwords work. It is also that you can always enter a password.

What if I don't have my phone to scan a qr-code? What if I want to use a minimalistic browser that doesn't implement a key pair store and I don't want to or can't set up one external? What if my minimal browser is text only? What if I'm on another device and don't have my stuff on there?

I will pretty much always be able to enter a string of characters. To quote the unix phillosphy:

Text is the universal interface.

Sort of. You're selectively quoting "Write programs to handle text streams, because that is a universal interface" -- but that was from the days when "text" was basically synonymous with "ASCII".

Passwords aren't streams, and in the Unicode world, they're not even (predictable) byte arrays. This isn't just hypothetical. There have been recent bugs in major systems where people with non-ASCII passwords couldn't type them.

One of the major failings of QR codes for consumer use, IMHO, is that there is no fallback. With UPC, the number is printed right below the barcode, so when it doesn't scan, the clerk can just type in the digits.

ASCII digits are universal. Bytes are universal. Text is ... complicated.

> There have been recent bugs in major systems where people with non-ASCII passwords couldn't type them.

Forget that, I've lost track of how many times I've hit the horrible bug of "site X lets me enter password Y, explicitly compliant with stated password rules, but then rejects it at login time." Either the registered password was mangled by some input sanitization/encoding, or the login password was. After some do-overs, it becomes clear that many "valid special character lists" are just plain wrong. It's 2018, and there's an appalling number of cases where someone doesn't understand that quoting/encoding ASCII/UTF-8/etc. is a 100% solved problem.

> ASCII digits are universal. Bytes are universal. Text is ... complicated.

All text should be UTF-8. It really shouldn't be complicated in $current_year.

Unicode itself gets pretty complicated:


Let's rephrase what GP said: All text should be UTF-8 in Normalization Form C.

The idea of "text is the universal interface" informed the design of unix and it resulted in text streams. But if I apply it to something entirely different, authentication, I come out at passwords.

And I wouldn't say that text meant ASCII. My understanding is that it meant text is the thing that could be understood and written by both people and computers.

The back story of the work some significant UNIX people did to get UTF8/Unicode into workable state in standards is amazing. Application of brilliant minds to a corner-case problem in international standards.


Another aspect to this is that it’s single channel: no problem if your phone is out of data or at 1% battery, you need USB-A but have USB-C, etc. Nobody needs to regularly read a code to someone over the phone but the people who have are probably going to remember that when getting pitched on any new system.

This is terrible from the perspective of phishing but we really need to avoid that causing us to ignore the usability hassles to everything else.

I’m happy to see that conversation get more nuanced, too, rather than just being game-theoretical about perfect security: acknowledging the usability and security costs of password complexity requirements or expiration, having intermediate checks for more sensitive operations so you’re not training users to hammer their password out hundreds of times a day, etc.

"It is also that you can always enter a password."

You are correct, as long as you throw out all the other password advice that, ironically, Troy Hunt has given us about not reusing passwords, making them long or full of hard-to-memorize characters, etc.

Once you use secure passwords by making them long and/or hard to memorize, unique for each website, etc., you can't just rely on your brain, fingers, and an awkward on-screen keyboard to "always enter a password." You need your password manager with you, you need privacy so nobody can shoulder surf while you agonizingly peck out your password on your touch screen keyboard (remember everyone learning Kanye's cell phone password recently?), etc.

Your statement about universality is only technically true.

It is also practically true.

I remember a couple of passwords for services I frequently have to log into without access to a password manager. I can make choices about the security requirements for different services, and the security of the passwords I use for them. I can make choices about how to store them. I use a command-line program that stores passwords in individual textfiles, encrypts them with gpg and manages them with git. I could also choose to write them into a notebook with a cypher I can do in my head.

These are all choices I get to make because passwords are text, and nothing else.

I was just about to type the same response.

I can also write down passwords (unencrypted) to sites that I use infrequently, and for which I have low security requirements. For many such sites, a password reset is reasonably implemented and fast, and so for a vast number of sites, email security (and thus, email password security) == arbitrary site password security anyway.

I'm not sure it has to be so difficult. It took me about an hour to come up with a scheme for creating long, unique, and random looking passwords that are very easy to remember.

Basically I have a prefix of length 7 which is two words, where some of the letters get converted to numbers, and then I use shift to make them into special characters.

Then for each website I append a different word that has some meaning for me, and convert the letters to numbers. Then I add a special character at the end.

A typical password might look like


Which is very easy for me to remember and type, reasonably long, and certainly not on any lists of most commonly used passwords.

Ways you could improve this method would be to have different prefixes for different industries (banking, social media, etc).

I used to do something like this too before I moved to password managers. The reasons were:

- If a password on a website is stolen or if the website forces me to change password, then my "rules based password generation" becomes a problem. Now, it needs to handle variations. And, with hundreds of websites, I won't remember which variation a certain website password is on.

- If a website has password rules that don't let me use my "rules based password generation," then what do I do? I tried having an alternative generation rule, but different websites have different password rules. So, no one / two / three generation rules will be able to generate acceptable passwords.

- The "append a different word" requirement is tricky. How do you append a different word for each of the hundreds of domains while having a way to mentally recall them? I chose to use the domain name and shift all letters up by one. However, that failed with sites that use multiple domain names.

- Sharing passwords with my wife became a hassle because the rules and variations were becoming too much for her.

Yes, there are this and myriad other schemes to accomplish the same thing.

This doesn't much help the average customer service worker who struggles to give correct change if you hand them cash in an amount that's not a round number.

Passwords are a thing that need to work for everyone, which means they need to work for the lowest common denominator too, which means the GP is correct to point out that password advice is contradictory: the lowest common denominator cannot both use strong, unique passwords and avoid using some other kind of technology to assist with that.

Do you really think regular users will do anything remotely close to this? Based on my interactions with normal/regular users, the chance for this to happen at any meaningful scale is zero (0)

I'm not certain regular users will, but I do believe that this should probably be practical knowledge that could be taught in schools considering the far reaching impacts of having financial accounts or email accounts hacked.

Alternatively teaching about the use of password managers might not be a bad idea.

But digital literacy should certainly be something that our society focuses on teaching it's young adults and keeping your accounts secure is one big component of that.

But considering our schools don't teach us about credit scores, and a myriad of other very useful things that can impact you in large ways down the line, I guess I'm not so hopeful.

It is generally always a trade-off between security and convenience. You can demand that a site allow passwords but you also aren't memorizing a 24 character nonsense password for each site login. The holy grail is can you bend the line and have something that is super secure and mostly convenient.

I currently work in an environment where I don't have access to a password manager, yet I am expected to have unique passwords for each service, and rotate passwords every month, and am not allowed to store passwords somewhere. Of course, this method requires you to remember more passwords than practically possible.

If all accounts would have sane restrictions on the password it would become trivial to have something both secure and convenient. I have been looking for a system that allows me to: 1. Does not require me to remember an absurd amount of information. 2. Allows me to login to services, even from other devices. 3. Has a unique password for each service (so that it is not disastrous if one password leaks).

We could have one master password, use site and username (and maybe a counter, to make it easy to rotate passwords) as salt, and use a hashing or password derivation algorithm to derive a unique password for each service. This would only require you to pick and remember a strong master password.

Once you have a counter, you have state, and you might as well just use a password manager.

It may be you're working in the one environment where the master password + derived password scheme + counter scheme would be an improvement, but the above objection is why it doesn't work well for most users.

> We could have one master password, use site and username (and maybe a counter, to make it easy to rotate passwords) as salt, and use a hashing or password derivation algorithm to derive a unique password for each service. This would only require you to pick and remember a strong master password.

This has been tried. While it initially sounds appealing, it is a monumentally terrible idea.

* You need software to implement the scheme.

* Rotation is a problem, you need a counter for state

* Different services have widely different password rules which are additional state

* If a site stores password data in cleartext or weakly hashed, your master password/passphrase can potentially be cracked

* People choose passphrases just as badly as they choose passwords

Just write your passwords down. Maybe leave a few characters off or don't label them.

> * If a site stores password data in cleartext or weakly hashed, your master password/passphrase can potentially be cracked.

It all comes down to the threat model you are defending against. The threat model I'm defending against is automated attempts to catch me reusing the same password with different accounts.

Even if you were defending against a motivated actor putting human eyes on your passwords, something like`XXXXXXsXXXXXXsssXX` where the X are reused across sites and the s is a derived, site-specific chunk is a) as good as completely random until your adversary is manually correlating multiple leaked passwords for you and b) not trivially obvious to derive once they are correlating multiple leaked passwords.

> until your adversary is manually correlating multiple leaked passwords for you

This is a thing that is done, and even automated. If you have a couple password dumps, checking levenshtein distance between them is not hard.

I know that environment well, you pretty much have to come up with a hash function you can do in your head. Is it secure? Maybe you can pull it off. I think most people can't, and that's what leads to people writing down passwords.

Writing down passwords is usually less bad than password reuse and use of weak passwords.

Its the same concept of the majority of offline password managers. You are hiding all of your amazing 32 character randomly generated unique passwords behind a single memorable password.

BUT its safe, because unless YOU are the target of the attack, the contents of your random slip of paper on your desk, or the password protected one note file on your dropbox, or the encrypted pwsafe3 file on your usb stick are outside of the reach of some bad actor trying to get ALL of the passwords, not just YOUR password.

Did you reply to the wrong comment?

Normally, to attack a password manager, you must have a copy of its database. With a deterministic password scheme, this is not required. This proves to be disastrous in practice for cryptocurrencies.

No, I'm saying writing your password down in a notebook on your desk in your locked office is nearly as safe as any offline password manager.

If you aren't the one under attack, and you still create different passwords for each service, the method of offline password storage (be it a spread sheet, a password manager, or a sticky note) are all similarly-ish safe.

Depending on the physical security posture of the location where the passwords are stored, that can be a correct statement. I wouldn't argue "usually" simply because most people aren't smart about where they're stored.

It depends on the threat vector, though. Printing out my passwords in 72-pt font and taping them to the wall is obviously insecure if I leave them up for the house cleaner to see, but there's zero risk that a remote attacker will see them (barring them taking over the webcam or something, but at that point they probably have root access anyway).

Or paying your housecleaner to take a picture and email it to them...

The key is to come up with a repeatable pattern that defeats whatever repeatable pattern detection that is in place and just apply it. You don't write down the password, you write down parts of the pattern.

Is it secure? No. But if you work at a place where SSO isn't a thing in 2018, it's not secure anyway.

This. I had a keyboard pattern I used in a similar environment. Just shift a row over every month. I couldn't ever tell you what the password was from memory, but could type it in no problem.

This is bad security advice. Don't this if at all possible.

> I currently work in an environment where I don't have access to a password manager

How is that reasonable? If you make a case that restricting password managers lowers security, could you possibly change it?

Password card.

Medium is frustratingly guilty here. Your login choices are limited to sharing data with Google/Facebook/Twitter or clicking a magic link in an email.

If you don't like to share your data with third parties then you are basically restricted to logging in on devices that have access to your email. Which means you're stuffed when that doesn't apply.

Security at the expense of usability is fine when it's warranted. All too often it's not.

What about a throwaway email? Does that leak device data?

(This whole thing reminds me of “Your post advocates a ... approach to spam. Your idea will not work. Here is why...” And maybe warrants a similar parody.)

It's not so much the choice of email address (throwaway or not) but the fact that you physically can't log in on a machine where you can't/don't want to access your email. You can't access the link and it's too long and cumbersome to type out manually.

So your only choice is to access your (personal) email on a device where you may not want/be allowed to.

I don't find that so objectionable, to log into their site you need to enter some credentials, _usually_ that checking is being offloaded from medium onto a third party you may trust more. In the case that you really need to access it where you don't wish to log into your primary email you will still need to login to something, their approach allows you to choose what sort of login security you'd like (maybe you want 2FA via google, maybe you want a more security lax service)

I think password managers are great but the service I see them providing that has the most benefit is to reduce the number of passwords the user needs to actively remember. The single sign on approach has it's weaknesses but the idea itself is pretty sound, you should legitimately trust facebook or google or whoever to know more about secure authentication than some random site... the fact that this service comes with a privacy leak and implies greater online presence tracking is terrible, but the core idea is sound. It'd just be nice to have a neutral party doing it.

I have no objection to them offering Facebook/Google etc for those who wish to use them.

The problem is the lack of an alternative which is how this whole thread started - their approach allows you to choose between logging in via a third party, or logging into your email on the same device. It doesn't let you log into their website directly.

I wouldn't mind if they emailed you some kind of time-limited one time token you could enter on the other device, rather than using a conventional password. But all they supply is a lengthy link, which can only practically be opened on the device that has access to your email.

I agree that it's a more salient point IMO. Smartphone based authenticator are not exactly difficult to understand, at least from a user's perspective. You enter your username, you get a prompt on your password, you're done.

Yubikeys are not difficult either. You enter your username, you focus the password field and you press the button. There, you're done. If anything it's easier and more convenient than a password.

Passwords are just the lowest common denominator. Everybody can memorize a character string, not everybody has a smartphone or yubikey with them at all times.

> You enter your username, you focus the password field and you press the button.

How much set up does it take to get to that point though? Usability at point of use is great but setting something up is usually far more difficult than actually using it.

They provide software that you install to configure your device. I haven't used it personally (my Neo 5 is being delivered), but they've done a pretty good job of making it easy.

The biggest problems are:

- limited selection of sites that support U2F - U2F is off by default in Firefox (it's a little buggy apparently) - somewhat expensive ($45 for Yubikey Neo)

Those are getting better, and I think the Yubikey can be used OOTB (you just enable it on an existing login to prove you own it). I'll be regenerating keys, but most users probably won't bother.

U2F is a legacy feature. New sites should deploy WebAuthn and existing sites should migrate, the Firefox pref override is for those remaining legacy sites. It basically bodges their WebAuthn implementation to offer a passable imitation of U2F.

I don't know if a Neo can replace the secret key that makes FIDO (and thus U2F/WebAuthn) work but doing so seems pointless. If bad guys tampered with it, they presumably neutered this feature; whereas if not it's fine out of the box. Certainly Yubico's cheaper FIDO2-only product offers no way to regenerate the secret.

Nobody today deploys WebAuthn to replace passwords, only as a second factor so it doesn't really undermine Troy's point, though perhaps our other countermeasures (long complicated passwords for every site, changed frequently) are less necessary if you have a good second factor like this.

The second way is to use one time pads in addition to passwords.

Who needs a smartphone when you can use a piece of paper. Mind you this can be copied so has a similar vulnerability to passwords. But since it can be generated you can think of it as a salted password when combined with a classic one.

And then we use the final way of authentication, hard to forge personal documents, government issued... often in poor ways.

Computer systems cannot be truly fully trusted. Final security always depends on the human operators and equivalent human impersonators. A skilled social engineer can even convince your friends the account is dead. They can call the delivery company or even initiate the procedure to reissue documents or destroy keys. They can phish and scam you which is even easier.

> It is also that you can always enter a password.

If you remember it. You either have to use weaker passwords (for example, same password on several sites) or you won't be able to remember them. Or you can write them down which is pretty secure, but is not it easier just to carry a hardware key instead of a notepad with passwords?

Also, once I accidentaly deleted Latin keyboard layout in Linux (yes, it is easy). And having only Russian layout I was unable to enter the password to log in (and even if I could I wouln't be able to use the console). I tried to use on-screen keyboard, but in Debian it cannot input characters not present in keyboard layout.

A bit of a bodge I find works is to make my passwords of the form word+site+number, say Mangohn4234 for HN. Then they are all different, pass the has it been pawned thing and its quite easy to remember Mango 4234 or similar if you use that for them all.

I see where you are coming from but sometimes you have to enforce some things. If you don't have 2FA, you can't login into this site is a completely rational consequence if for example this site is handling financial assets of yours.

But it's possible that in the future we will put the bar higher. Then these arguments might be considered as silly as "with HTTPS I can no longer telnet into a web site and issue HTTP commands by hand!" (and don't tell me people didn't do that, I did it myself).

There’s also room for nuance even with financial sites: e.g. do MFA for everything which causes money to change hands but don’t require it every time someone checks their balance or confirms that their rent check went through, especially from a frequently-used client.

Similarly, if you’re not a financial site question whether you’re doing anything of value. The Netflix example is great: a huge password really doesn’t matter unless the site allows you to see stored credit card information since the worst thing someone can do is load your viewing history up with high ratings for Iron Fist. Continuing to cargo cult DoD policies from the 1970s has caused more problems than it’s stopped.

Indeed, the best policy is to not store any data. Even easier to comply with GDPR this way. No account is best account.

This requires that the site supports automatic completion and pasting. Quite a few sites explicitly prevent it for stupid reasons like assuming user browser is compromised.

(If it is, you shouldn't be using the webpage for authentication.)

I really value the GDPR for getting companies to see stored data as a potential risk rather than just something which can potentially be sold later.

They could also:

- increase your subscription and watch using your account for free - send DVDs to their house and sell them - use your same email/password combo on other sites

If you use 2FA for most things, it's much harder exploit anything. However, you need to use good 2FA, not that SMS crap.

Everything you mentioned was covered in my original comment:

> - increase your subscriptio

This should force a confirmation and notifications as I noted. Simply checking the credit card CVV is way more useful than traditional MFA.

> and watch using your account for free

Not your problem and Netflix must monitor that to catch friends and family sharing anyway.

> - send DVDs to their house and sell them

Also a financial change which should trigger checks. Again, CVV does the job perfectly fine.

> use your same email/password combo on other sites

This is only true if they utterly botch the design by storing passwords insecurely and displaying them to the user. If either of those are true, it’s virtually certain that they’ve made equally bad mistakes elsewhere which MFA won’t help with.

I would never claim there is no legitimacy to enforcing 2FA. At my last job we ran into a situation like that. I always lacked things other people and services took for granted for financial and political reasons (like a smartphone). When we were required to use 2FA for some services at work it caused some friction for me. We found a workable solution, but it was less than ideal.

They were right to turn on 2FA but it does come at a cost, and that cost isn't always worth it.

>But it's possible that in the future we will put the bar higher. Then these arguments might be considered as silly as "with HTTPS I can no longer telnet into a web site and issue HTTP commands by hand!" (and don't tell me people didn't do that, I did it myself).

I'm actually going to make the opposite counter-argument. I do think https is a great achievement but I also think we lost something with the additional complexity introduced in, what used to be, a fairly simple protocol with wide adoption. I don't think those were silly arguments to have had.

For your telnet example, you can still use ncat, opens, or gnutls-cli to enter HTTP commands directly over a TLS transport. Yes it's more complicated, but it's still doable.

Of course I feel a lot better using ssh than using telnet. I just don't want people to discount that this added complexity is the price we pay for the security.

Or, what if I don't own a phone? I do own a phone, but my wife does not because she doesn't want one.

I am particularly empathetic to that position, because I didn't own a phone until very recently and it caused a bunch of problems for me. It informed my perspective a lot.

> Despite it's [sic] many flaws, the one thing that the humble password has going for it over technically superior alternatives is that everyone understands how to use it. Everyone.

I think the problem is that people don't understand how to use passwords. They will reuse them among sites. They pick easily-guessable and low entropy ones. They will type them into any website that asks. The end result is that not much security is provided.

(Things are just as bad on the server side, of course. Developers store them in plain text. They will email them to you. They delete entropy so that you can use your password to log in over the phone or from a computer terminal that apparently only has capital letters. I've even seen a website where the password is sent to the browser and the password checking happens in Javascript. Not great guys, not great.)

> I think the problem is that people don't understand how to use passwords

From the looks of it, neither do the authenticators. The capital letter + symbol + number requirement had led to the current predicament. Just asking for really long passwords would have been a lot better.

As it stands, people either use a predictable string of num-symbol to satisfy requirements or remember that one strong password,.which qualifies for all of the above.

Software like Lastpass are great, but I don't always have access to them. They also make all of my.online security have a single point of failure.

I think it would be a lot better if companies just changed password requirements to a decently large length eg: min 20.

This eliminates the likely hood of password like abc123, qwerty and the oh so lovely "password".

Just by itself, long passwords will result in people using "franklymydearIdontgiveadamn" and other things susceptible to a dictionary attack.

Long passwords plus a bad password check (https://www.troyhunt.com/ive-just-launched-pwned-passwords-v...) might suffice. However, without that check, I suspect requiring special characters marginally improves entropy in practice.

Pretty much everybody I know and asked in the office just sticks some punctuation at the end, e.g. "Passw0rd$". IDK how much of an "improvement" that is, compared to e.g. 4 extra characters.

That's definitely a thing, and you're right, it doesn't add much entropy (people choose from a few numbers, a few special characters, not that many substitutions). Four extra characters that are truly random (even just out of 26 letters) is way better. However, that's not the alternative I'm worried about. I'm worried about people using phrases that will be in the first few thousand entries in a phrase dictionary.

And that's still better than a crappy, short password. I use lyrics, quotes, etc for my important passwords (password manager, email, etc), and my passwords are >20 characters (usually >30) and really easy to remember (and I can secure it by placing one extra symbol in there).

The attacker doesn't know what I'm using for my password, so they have to attack all valid combinations up to the max length the server supports.

Song lyrics are not safe https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2013/08/there...

I don’t know exactly where the breakeven point is, but there is some point where a song lyric or other phrase provides less entropy than a relatively short password.

Bottom line: use a lot of random ascii characters(at least 14 or 16, or 4 random words) and you’re probably set. Use less, or a found phrase and it’s not good.

You can't talk about safe without a threat-model, especially distinguishing between whether you're trying to prevent offline attacks against stored data or brute-forcing a running login system. If you can rate-limit many things are fine, especially if you have some confirmations at key points (“Your account was just accessed from …”) with restrictions which make it hard for an attacker to permanently wrest control of the account or incur large costs immediately after gaining access — think about how Amazon.com doesn't require 30 character passwords because adding a new shipping address requires you to re-confirm the credit card information first.

That's definitely true, though you can simplify matters by saying "I'm always going to try to have passwords that are safe against offline attacks".

I would ask what’s the cost benefit ratio for defending against offline attacks with increasingly unpleasant password requirements versus things like increased KDF rounds, general server security improvements, and the defense in depth measures which increase the costs of actually profiting from a user account compromise.

I think we’ve historically been shaped by classic Unix crypt() memories where something couldn’t easily be fixed without breaking compatibility even though that era is largely in the past.

I see how this wasn’t obvious, but I never actually said anyone should implement any particular password requirements, just that certain requirements might not increase entropy as much as you might think.

My above comment about offline attacks was my personal stance/ideal: I use a password manager for just about everything, not something I’d mandate.

As a developer, in many contexts I might implement min 8 chars with no special char requirements. I think the bad password check is also a good idea.

The problem with that is that in quite some cases I don't care about the security so I can just use a crap password.

But a sufficiently long password could literally just be 'a', repeated. Would that really be more secure?

Honestly if you want somebody to have a secure password, make it for them and e-mail it to 'em. Virtually no chance they are going to use it for anything else, and if somebody has their e-mail, they can recreate one anyway.

People aren't good at memorizing long lists of things, so just requiring long passwords isn't sufficient unless you are willing to also allow everyone to use the same password everywhere, and that's worse than the single point of failure problem than password managers because that's a distributed point of failure (just one breach of any site/application that you use; your security there is only as good as the weakest link).

>People aren't good at memorizing long lists of things

It's much easier to remember a 40 character passphrase of real words than a 12 character password of random symbols including punctuation

Yes, but it doesn't solve the problem of memorizing a list of 40 character passphrases for every single website/app that you use. Length alone as a password strength requirement is not sufficient. Length alone only further encourages password reuse, because people won't memorize more than one or two passwords, especially as they get longer.

A 40 character password of real words is usually easier to crack than a random 12 character string, though.

Citation needed (that sounds wrong without seeing the maths).

But also missing the point. It just has to be better than the usual 8 + some punctuation at the end that most people resort to when faced with these shitty, asinine password rules.

English words are ~1.5 bits per character, random ascii garbage is ~6.5 bits per character.

It really starts to depend on the details. If there are 10,000 words and you use 5 of them, that is 1.1x more than 12 characters where you only use lowercase letters, numbers, and shifted numbers. Tweak the allowed symbols, length, and your dictionary and you can make either one look better than the other.

I think there are probably less than 10,000 words that people would choose for their password, and that people use capital letters... maybe, but don't use 12 character passwords (8 more reasonable) so it could really go either way.

screye is almost certainly referring to XKCD-style passwords, like "correct horse battery staple" [1] which are memorable and comparatively high-entropy, but don't have symbols or numbers.

[1] https://xkcd.com/936/

Yes, one is memorable, which is why it is a great password for your password manager of choice. Again, the problem is if screye is advocating that password managers are a "single point of failure" and that length should be sufficient: people don't have the mental hardware to remember an XKCD-style password for every single website or application they use.

> I think the problem is that people don't understand how to use passwords.

They do understand it. They just trade security for laziness.

Exactly. The thing is, they keep doing it because... it works.

The vast majority of the time, for the vast majority of people, it never results in any issue at all. And solve plenty of their problems.


I've tried educating non-technical friends and family about insecure passwords and how random long strings are more secure. Their responses are:

1. "I can't remember that password! / I don't want to type that!"

2. "I'm a nobody, hackers wouldn't be interested in me. My account has no interesting data." [explanations about botnets doing damage to others go way over their heads]

3. "If someone REALLY wants to hack me then I can't stop them anyway."

They think that the inconveniences of secure password practices are not worth it.

I don't think a password manager will solve it for them. Especially older family members are "afraid of technology" - they are constantly worried that they will break something, and when something is written on the screen 9 out of 10 times they have no idea what it means. I have enough trouble explaining how copy-paste works — I don't think I can explain them what a password manager is, or how to keep in in sync across their devices, let alone convincing them to pay for such a thing.

I've tried the low-tech way. Advising them to use XKCD-style password and writing them down on paper. The result: they keep passwords over multiple pieces of paper/notebooks and they always lose them.

I've resorted to PMaaS — Password Management as a Service. In other words: I dictate what passwords they use, and I manage it for them in my password manager. Their login method is to call me to retrieve their login credentials.

> They think that the inconveniences of secure password practices are not worth it.

And they're probably right from their own perspective.

I honestly don't give a shit about 90% of the services I sign up to that require passwords

This does not work, you're a single point of failure. If you say, get sick, family members will override security.

Nice try though. I'd recommend an actual password manager instead. Authenticated with biometrics and a simpler local password.

Your service does the same, using voice and phone number as biometrics. (Perhaps with recovery question.) Feel free to replace it with sufficiently advanced AI.

Please, try to be in my shoes. Even teaching copy-paste is so difficult, how do you want me to teach them biometrics?

The "I'll manage all your passwords for you" is the only solution that actually works. The ONLY other alternative is that they use 123456 as password everywhere. I already explained why I can't get them to use a password manager.

What about going back to the notebook idea? You give them a notebook that's called 'Passwords' and it sits on the desk beside their computer. They only write passwords in that notebook, and you can explain to them to write at least 20 random numbers and letters for new passwords.

When you visit, you can write those passwords down in your password manager. This way if the book goes missing or there is a disaster, you have a backup.

They lose the entire notebook. The thing is, they only need login credentials a couple of times a year or so. Things like social media and email are apps that are logged in all the time so they only need to reauthenticate when something is wrong or when a special event happens (like buying a new phone). So that only leaves a thousand different boring things that they only rarely access, like the government ID, the utility company account, the insurance company account, etc. So every time they have no idea where that particular notebook is among their tens of other notebooks, pieces of papers etc.

So what if 123456 is a sensible password for them? Explain them why they should use a more secure password. If they don't get it's maybe they really don't need a more secure password (they don't care who has access to their accounts, and the likelihood of them being hacked is very low).

People get killed every day making similar assumptions with automobile safety. The ability for a person to "get it" is not a good indicator of their susceptibility to harm.

I do this for sites that I don't particularly care about. My wife and I have something we call our default password and it's protecting our Hulu account, our newspaper login, our Pandora login, etc...

> They will type them into any website that asks. maybe off-topic but on many linux distro the prompt to unlock your keyring does not mention what application is asking.

i had a theory a few years back that human-chosen passwords would get simpler due to mobile keyboards. Not sure if anyone has compared leaked password dumps from before and after the great mobile-migration to see if that's happened or not.

Seems like a pretty logical theory. If you ever use a password manager on desktop and then decide you need to access the same service on mobile... well typing in that 20 character string of random characters becomes a real pain in the behind.

Though it's also quite likely a lot of users don't even remember their passwords at all now and just use password reset every time they want to log in.

Why is it not great for the password checking to happen client-side? What is the security risk? You can do client-side hashing safely as well.

Because if it happens client-side, then I can completely bypass your site's security by opening the dev console and changing `if (enteredPassword === correctPassword)` to `if (true)`.

I presume GP is talking about the plaintext password, not the hashed one. If plaintext, then every client gets to see the password so they can use it on the second attempt. If hashed, it still leaks more information than is otherwise necessary, and opens the door to rainbow tables (if inadequately salted) etc., since the server can no longer rate-limit validation requests.

Sorry but I'm still not really following...where is the leak if it's hashed client-side? And the client will see the plaintext password regardless of whether there is processing or not.

I guess what I'm asking is this: can someone walk me through the attack scenario? I don't really get it.

Consider: Mallory wants to access Alice's account on a website.

1. Mallory enters Alice's username and a random password

2. Website sends back Alice's plaintext password to be checked client side

3. Mallory inspects network traffic and retrieves Alice's plaintext password

It's also bad if the hash is sent back; now Mallory can run all sorts of attacks on the hash itself without worrying about rate limits or any other protection the site operator could implement.

Wait why is the password being sent back by the server to the client? Is that what the commenter originally meant?

If that's the case I completely misunderstood what they meant by processing the password with JavaScript. What you've described is insane; I thought the critique was in regards to processing a password locally before sending it to the server (e.g. local hashing).

I believe so. This was the original description (emphasis mine):

> I've even seen a website where the password is sent to the browser and the password checking happens in Javascript.

i.e. the server sends the (plaintext or hashed) password to the client, and the client verifies it locally.

Edit: the original commenter replied as a sibling to you: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18382949

In the case I was talking about, it was even worse. The Javascript just set a GET param that said the password is OK. You can then log in as anyone with this method.

As I recall, it did send you the plaintext password too, of course.

From the article:

> I'm referring to passwordless solutions that involves things like QR codes, pictorial representations, 3rd party mobile apps, dedicated hardware devices or "magic" links sent via email.

I'm not entirely sure the argument holds for the magic links sent via email. To me, those feel like lower friction that entering a password. Because all of a sudden, users don't have to remember their password.

For any company considering this, I'd suggest looking at how often the 'forgot my password please send me an email' feature is used. I know that, before I had a password manager, there were accounts where I simply never remembered my password. I had to use them like once every month, and it was easier to just get the password reset link.

Now consider how much easier a 'click here and be logged in' link is than a password reset system. This only really gives friction for those few people who aren't always connected to their e-mail system. On account creation, this system is even better. All a user needs to enter is their e-mail address. No more needing to enter a password (twice!). No more dealing with password requirements.

"magic" e-mail links feel like they really could be a password killer in terms of lower friction.

However, it isn't clear at all that "magic" e-mail links are more secure than passwords. I'd guess that, given enough adoption, they'd develop some issues.

There are some minor issues with the magic link workflow - one of them is security scanning software potentially visiting the link.

So then you need to open the link in the same browser you want to use. But what if you want to log in on a desktop browser and only have your email on your phone?

Maybe have the magic link show a couple letters you need to type into the browser?

> one of them is security scanning software potentially visiting the link.

I gave it some thought, and that seems to be solvable. Have the link go to a 'confirm' page, where the confirm button performs a post request. If security scanning software is randomly hitting post requests, that is just totally ridiculous.

What seems a lot more scary to me is the plaintext nature of e-mail. Even SMTP over TLS doesn't keep any end-points from reading your email, and I'm guessing there is a small but significant set of people who'se email providers don't run TLS.

Besides, if someone can recognize that any request is underway for a login, they might intercept it and send a phishing fake.

They are trivially solvable problems. PKCE and just displaying a QR code if you open it on the wrong device makes it pretty much foolproof.

e.g.: https://magic.cuvva.com/auth-callback?code=authzcode_000000B...

We're oriented around mobile use cases. Admittedly less ideal if you don't have your email on your desktop. But ultimately, if all else fails, you can always log into your webmail.

For me the key thing is that it doesn't rely on users having any particular knowledge or understanding best practices - they just need to hit the big green button. Sure people are more used to passwords, but that doesn't mean the usability of magic links isn't still better despite them being much less common.

Normal people are so bad at dealing with passwords. They reuse them, they forget them, they write them down on text files on their computer. Almost anything is better if your userbase isn't primarily technically adept people.

And frankly most popular email providers are pretty good at keeping the accounts secure. Likely much better than anything homegrown we could do. Especially given the fact that you'll just end up having password resets via email anyway.

> They reuse them, they forget them, they write them down on text files on their computer.

Writing them down in a textfile on the computer might not even be that bad _if_ they, as a consequence, are not or less reused.

The QR-code thingy hits a friction barrier. For me needing to go to my phone is more friction than unlocking my password manager. Note that I only need to unlock my password manager once per reboot, and that for most people the password manager is already too much friction.

You'd only use the QR code thing if you were logging into an app on your phone, but had opened the email on your laptop. It wouldn't make sense in the other direction.

Does this work for the case you have your email on your phone but you want to use the site on a computer? That seems more likely to me than the case that you have your email on your computer only, but it is neat to see that case addressed.

Yeah it's a fair point. The case I mentioned is for Cuvva, which currently is mobile-only.

Webmail is always a decent backup option though, so doesn't give me too much concern in terms of people getting stuck. But may be a little less seamless, particularly if they're using a shared/public computer. That scenario throws password managers out of the window too though.

We've had "magic" links as the primary sign in method for our site for about a year now. It works well but we very regularly get requests to allow password login. So much so that we'll introduce that eventually.

Seems like both in combo could be a nice solution, but I'm sure we'll just start getting support requests from people whose password doesn't work because they never set one...

Interestingly, we replaced our login with magic links only over a year ago. We have roughly 1600-2000 active users, and as far as I know, we've never had anyone request a password login.

Not that I think about it.. it's kinda suspicious that no one has asked for it in all this time. Hmm..

Did you have issues with delayed email delivery (the user wants to login but the email is delayed because of some grey listing or some network glitch)?

Did you have issues with delayed email delivery (the user wants to login but the email is delayed because of some grey listing or some network glitch)?

No, we use Postmark which delivers very fast.

We use Mailgun which delivers quite fast, but we noticed that some customers, especially the big companies with an IT department running its own email server, tend to have some form of greylisting: if it is the first time they receive an email from our system, then they refuse it temporarily, and ask our system to retry in (for example) 5 minutes. Mailgun manages this nicely, but during those 5 minutes, the user is still waiting his/her magic link.

Postmark doesn't allow marketing emails, so their reputation scores are better and hence they have better deliverability. That's their main value prop.

I know about this, and about Postmark great deliverability, but the greylisting some companies use is naive and doesn't care about reputation: if you are a new sender, you to have wait 5 minutes and retry, whoever is sending (Postmark or Mailgun).

This. I think Slack is doing this perfectly, they still use passwords but emphasize the magic link email. I find it a lot easier to just use the magic link the first time I join a new slack. Then once you are logged in you basically never need to log out and if you ever need to reset the password its just a click away.

"... friction for those few people who aren't always connected to their e-mail system."

I'm not sure the size of this population is well understood to be able to label them as "few" - it may be few for a given set of services, but may be many for a different set of services.

I don't agree with the author. Passwords are difficult to remember and easy to steal. Example I saw: old people write their card's PIN code on it because they cannot remember it. Everyone knows how to use it, you say?

I think that for an average, not computer-loving type of person, a hardware key is the best solution. You don't need to remember anything: just insert the key and press the button.

Why aren't they popular? I think because they are not a standard and are not built in. You don't get a free key when buying a laptop or a smartphone and that's the main reason why nobody is using them.

But there already are applications that don't use passwords. For example, Telegram (IM application): when you install it you only have to enter your phone number, it sends the code in SMS, the app reads the code without user's interaction, and authenticates the device. No passwords, no need to remember anything. I don't like this (it is not convenient for those who use a burner phone number for registration), but for a more typical user it is convenient and doesn't require them to remember anything.

I think we will see more passwordsless authentication in the future.

When using hardware keys remember to register at least two. In case one stops working or is lost/stolen you're locked out of your account. Backup codes help but they're another barrier one have to remember.

In my humble opinion, very few know how to use a password. Most of the people still believe that their cat name starting with a capital letter and with 1 in the end is a good password. Or that once you have a good password it is enough to use it everywhere. Same passwords everywhere is not a security, it's a vision of security. It may surprise author that main reason to provide authentication is to give some security, and in case of every single non-it person I know their passwords are just an illusion.

So, I would argue, while anyone can type in some staff, how to make it secure is rare knowledge almost no one has. So, is it, really "everyone knows how it works"? Or just everyone repeating their not quite secure passwords to make machine happy without any understanding of consequences

You could argue that few people use passwords in a properly secure manner, and you'd likely be right, but the real question is what will replace passwords?

The truth you describe doesn't mean that we should convince people to use passwords correctly, rather that passwords aren't the best security medium for humans. It's unreasonable for people to be expected to craft highly secure, brand new passwords each time they need one, and also expect it to be stored in long-term memory. That process is simply out of scope for most humans.

So then, how do we make this easier without compromising security?

All valid points. But there two other main reasons I see as why (strong) passwords are essentially a superior choice to everything:

1) Using passwords properly is an exceptionally powerful way of protecting your account/data/etc. If you use strong, unique passwords and store in a password manager (with the PW database encrypted, of course), it's virtually impossible to break into anything on the user side of things. You might be able to gain access via the server/business side depending on the hack you are pulling off, but that's on the company rather than the user. For instance, I do personally have my passwords stored in a password manager with an encrypted database. They're all unique and strong, as is the password used to access the password database. That password exists only in my mind. It's not written down anywhere or stored in some file on any computer. It's not physically printed out on paper or anything like that. It literally only exists in my head. And given its complexity and length, there is effectively nothing that will be able to break it in any reasonable amount of time. The government also can't force it from me as they could with other methods like 2FA, QR codes, fingerprints, etc. due to 1st amendment issues. Basically, short of getting me to log in from a compromised (i.e. keylogged) device (highly unlikely) or torturing me for the info, there's no way of getting it. And if you're willing to torture me for it - ok, you win then.

2) From a technical point - basically every device we would use to log into anything has either a keyboard (whether physical or on-screen) or some sort of keypad (again, physical or on-screen). This makes for universal compatibility. If people need to have special QR-code scanning/creation software installed on a device, or fingerprint-reading hardware - that creates a non-trivial barrier to the device compatible with the login process.

"If you use strong, unique passwords and store in a password manager (with the PW database encrypted, of course)"

You aren't talking about passwords the same way everyone else here, especially TFA, is talking about passwords. You might as well be talking about RSA keys at this point.

Perhaps more appropriately AES keys, as they are a shared secret (shared with the target site even if it's using a decent password hash) rather than a private key.

For #1, the master password gets entered in when you need to decrypt the password file, right?

Doesn't that mean that anyone who can read the input stream from your keyboard can decrypt all your passwords?

I mean, I use a password manager because it's the least-shitty way I can think of to not reuse passwords, but to me it's a matter of when and not if some bad guy manages to insert malware into the password manager code and get all the passwords.

Correct. That's why I mentioned the keylogger risk.

I haven't heard of any system that replaces passwords all the way. Apart from usability most systems eighter rely on things that are hard to change (biometrics), things that can be copied (keyfiles, cookies, software) or things that can be stolen (hardware token). So they don't replace something that you have to remember (password).

Passwords are easy to change and while they can be copied, that would be the result of the user or the login software doing something stupid. Not something wrong with concept of the password login itself.

IMO those systems can be used to make the login more secure but replacing password all together not so much.

> Apart from usability most systems eighter rely on things that are hard to change (biometrics), things that can be copied (keyfiles, cookies, software) or things that can be stolen (hardware token).

Actually... When you log on with a password today, an Identity Provider like Google or Microsoft typically issues you a "ticket granting ticket" (TGT) which you can use to get more tickets. The TGT is stored in a cookie on the web or in the OS. This TGT is something that be can copied. So, today, when you log on, you provide your password to get something that can be copied that you then use to log on to various services. Point being, something that can be copied is in the flow anyway, so switching from password to something that can be copied and revoked is only an improvement.

"copied" in my case is something negative. I meant that as this information is stored unencrypted somewhere and can be just copied and used by an attacker to authenticate as an specific user.

The ticket or cookie or what ever is just used to signify to the system that you are authenticated as user x and specific to http because it is stateless. So an implementation detail and not part of the authentication concept.

I meant cookies here as data that lives in the browser forever or until the user requests a new one just using that cookie alone. And removing that cookie results in locking that account forever.

Why I like passwords (and various key locked/unlocked with passwords? Simply because I can change them, I control them.

Biometrics is unsafe by design because our body can change outside our control and our body is public enough and unchangeable enough to be a REALLY unsafe authentication system for anything but human being interacting together.

External other-factor auths like OTP, side verification, port-knocking, ... are good, but they still need a password somewhere in the chain.

So no, it's not only a matter of reactionary users not willing to change but also a matter of rational safety reasoning.

When current bio-related credentials are stolen, they're not stealing your hand or your iris or your face.

They're stealing destructive hashes of those things.

It'd be like having someone sketch a stick figure version of you, and then you claim your identity was stolen.

No, it wasn't. Stick figure drawings only work in stick figure readers.

Take a look at some "sophisticated" retinal scan, they are in the end cameras, a special kind one. Fingerprint readers? Another kind of scanner. It doesn't matter that today's only few simpler model can be cracked with a single strip of scotch, it's only a matter of time.

And we can go up, even imaging quick DNA scanner, quick enough and smart, it does not change that much, your DNA can be grabbed around you in many way.

The essential point is simple: using your body means using an exposed key, using a password means using your brain that it's far harder to "expose". Also passwords are trivial enough, you can even check your keyboard for builtin keylogger, protect your environment from camera, microphone (phone/audio analyze to determine key's you press) etc. Try to hw check a biometric system and well... Good luck.

I signed up for something recently and on the password screen it popped up with something along the lines of "Hey, can we generate a secure password for you, don't worry, your browser will remember it for you?" I said yes, sure enough a strong password appeared and Chrome offered to remember it. Seemed like a nice introduction to using secure passwords. The next thing I signed up for I manually generated a secure password and pasted it in and that is now stored in my browser too.

And now that person is forever locked in to the browser they were using at sign up time. What happens if they move from Mac → Windows or Android → iOS?

As long as they use the same browser on each of those platforms, they're good.

Yes, vendor lock-in is an issue; and I hope eventually there'll be a way to sync credentials across browsers. But keep in mind that, even as things are now, it only locks you to a specific browser, not to a specific OS.

Exporting the passwords is also possible, so it's not really much lock-in. Not to the kind of person who'd care, and want to switch browsers.

You got it backwards. Vendor lock-in rarely applies to experts. It is the people who "don't care" that _we_ should care about protecting from lock-in. After all, that is how we got internet explorer 6.

Those, in my experience, are the same people who can't switch browsers. They aren't capable of learning new things, and can often barely keep going with what they have.

Not in my experience. They are the people who just don't care. What they have works well enough, so they don't look to change it.

Good point—anyone using Chrome is good. I was thinking of people who are using Safari or Edge, which aren't available on other platforms.

Assuming your browser syncs passwords, etc.

I know a ton of people who use Chrome on non-mobile and Safari on mobile.

I think most browsers can import most information from most other browsers at this point.

Or use more than one device to login?

All major browsers can sync their passwords across their desktop and mobile versions. I use Firefox Sync on two laptops, one desktop and an Android phone.

I was unaware that Firefox / Chrome can own all your passwords in their cloud.

Not sure about Chrome, but Firefox encrypts everything on the client before syncing, they only see blobs of bytes. Plus you can run your own Sync server.

Ancient reply, but...

Even if Firefox "encrypts" before syncing, they must decrypt in order to provide the clear text password from another browser, no? They don't send "blobs of bytes" to password form entries.

Most browsers still don't have a second line of defense (like password managers do), correct? So, if a user has access to my browser for two mins, they can see all my passwords in plain text. They can't if my passwords are in password managers which will ask for my master password. I never understood why browsers didn't give an option to have a bit more security with those passwords. Just let the user enter one master password before they can see their stored passwords.

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