There is an authentication plague upon the land. We have to claim and assert our identity repeatedly to a host of authentication trolls, each jealously guarding an Internet service of some sort. Each troll has specific rules for passwords, and the rules vary widely and incomprehensibly.
Password length requirements vary: Dartmouth wants exactly eight characters; my broker, six to eight; Wells Fargo, eight or more. Special characters are often encouraged or required, but some characters are too special: many disallow spaces, single or double quotes, underlines, or hyphens. Some systems disallow certain characters at the beginning of the password; dictionary checks abound, including foreign language dictionaries.
Sure, brokerage, bank, and medical sites need to protect accounts from unauthorized use. So do shopping sites such as Amazon. An email account might be just as important: ask Sarah Palin. The value of an account can change over time: perhaps a new online store is added to a previously unimportant account.
Not only do these authentication rules vary widely, the rules themselves are often considered to be part of the security secret and not available at login time, when a hint about the rules would be helpful. I call these eye-of-newt password rules: they remind me of the formulae for magic potions from Shakespeare. They are often particular, exacting, and sometimes difficult to satisfy. Can you think of a long passphrase that does not repeat any character more than four times?
The problem is emergent: if we had only one account, authentication would be much easier. But an active Internet user can have one- or two dozen accounts, some important, some not. These authentication trolls bother most online users, and it is easy to elicit a litany of complaints from casual users.
Many of today's rules are rooted in the deep past of security concerns, when access, threats, and targets were different. Many of these ideas were presented in the Password Management Guideline, (Technical Report CSC-STD-002-85), published by the Department of Defense Computer Security Center (DoD CSC) in 1985.2 Known as the Green Book, this report was one of the Rainbow Series of books put out by the U.S. government in the 1980s and 1990s. Its advice was good at the time, and much of it still holds up, but many of our password aphorisms come from dated assumptions about threats and technology.
This is not a criticism of the original authors or their document: no sensible security person would expect these rules to stand unamended for decades. The lore has simply not kept up with the threats and vulnerabilities.
The Password Management Guideline came out shortly after the more-famous Orange Book (Trusted Computer System Evaluation Criteria). The Green Book was the DoD's management guideline for access to classified or sensitive government computers. It is also the basis for most of the current password rules. Most computer access at the time was either via local batch processing (with cards!) or through local or remote serial lines using terminals. The PC and Macintosh were available, but they were not especially relevant to secure computing and certainly were not networked.
Here is an important note found early in the report:
Because it is anticipated that diverse user communities will adopt this guideline, all recommendations are presented in general rather than specific terminology...Where features require the setting of a specific value (for example, password maximum lifetime), it is suggested that these he designed as parametric settings leaving the determination of exact values to local security management...
The question for today's security specialists is, what still makes sense from the 1985 guidelines? The current authentication mess suggests that we have not kept up with this task. Perhaps this article will spur some rethinking along these lines.
The DoD report offered specific advice about authentication and passwords. It stated that in a password-based authentication mechanism implemented on an ADP (automated data processing) system, passwords are vulnerable to compromise because of five essential aspects of the password system:
Furthermore, according to the report:
login(1)command. It is still a fine idea.
On Unix/Linux personal accounts, a stolen password is just the beginning. Systems are rooted, backdoors installed, and, often, other security weaknesses are fixed. SSH (secure shell) clients are installed to capture other passwords. It tends to be easier to root a Unix host given a user account. Table 1 is a sample of the number of SUID(root) programs on a few sample operating systems, found with the command
find / -user root -perm 4000 -print.
Each of the examples in Table 1 is a potential root compromise, and an attacker can often find at least one.
The most obvious threat to the security provided by a password system is from the compromise of passwords. The greater the length of time during which a password is used for authentication purposes, the more opportunities there are for exposing it. In a useful password system, the probability of compromise of a password increases during its lifetime.
This section refers to Green book Appendix C, which gets to the meat of password strength and lifetime in the face of dictionary attacks. Several simple formulae are offered (an ASCII layout and typos makes the math more difficult to follow in the online versions), and results computed for a typical case of the time.
The goal is to resist a year's worth of dictionary attacks with a cracking probability of 106 (or 1020 for sensitive systems). To give one of the report's examples, a nine-character password of only uppercase letters can resist a yearlong dictionary attack over a 30-character-per-second terminal session, assuming 8.5 guesses per minute. The report offers similar computations for uppercase alphanumeric characters and words selected from a 23,300-entry dictionary of English words from four to six characters in length. The authors admit a much higher guessing rate if a file on hand is protected by a password.
Let's plug in the numbers for a modern dictionary attack using 100 million and seven billion trials per second. The first is an easy rate for a multicore machine running on typical password-hashing algorithms. The second rate is claimed for attacks implemented on modern GPUs by a commercial source. These are somewhat conservative numbers in an age of multicore processors, clusters of computers, and botnets. If you think they are too aggressive, wait a year. Table 2 shows the cracking time and password change rates for some variations.
The second scheme shown in the table is tougher than passwords considered secure these days: it is eight random characters chosen from the 93 characters found on a keyboard (a bit more than eye-of-newt). This strong password needs to be changed every 31 milliseconds for security purposes. (My crude spreadsheet for exploring this is available on my Web site.1)
Once an account is compromised, the rot sets in and spreads through further attacks and transitive trust. Other accounts are attacked with the same password, often successfully.
The last two schemes in the table roughly meet the criteria of this document: the password may be changed annually without risking more than a one-in-a-million chance of compromise after a yearlong dictionary attack. These correspond to a work factor of 77-79 bits, which might surprise you as being much larger than typical password strengths actually required, usually from 20 to the mid-40s.3 The added bits come from the requirement of 106 guessing success probability, which adds 20 bits to the password length. (The spec actually calls for a probability of 1020 for classified access: that adds 66 bits!)
The one-in-a-million requirement is probably unreasonable. With an installation of very expensive brute-force hardware, I am unlikely to deploy it for a year to gain access to a high-value target if my chances of success are, say, 1%. On the other hand, history is full of examples of defenders underestimating the amount of work an attacker is willing to undertake.
Most practitioners who do follow this rule use a basic password, modified by some service-dependent portion. If that variable portion is obvious, they probably should not bother. In this case, it would probably be better to choose different, strong passwords and ignore the next piece of advice.
Writing your passwords down, however, is probably much safer than using the same password on multiple machines. In most cases today, the attacker does not have to be present to win. Your machine can be compromised from very far away. Or the attacker leaves infected USB thumb-sticks in the company parking lot. The check-the-Post-It attack is much less common than networked hacking attacks.
Of course, there is no need to make it too easy. Write down a comment or variation on the password that is sufficient to remind you of the real password. Sometimes I find a reminder of the particular site's eye-of-newt rule is enough.
Password wallets are a terrific idea for storing passwords, but they get you back in the game of storing secrets on possibly unsecured computers with network access. The yellow pad in your office is probably more secure.
This can be a particular problem for rarely used passwords. For example, corporate-provided health care in the U.S. requires employees to review and make changes to coverage options annually. These systems require strong authentication and tend to be used exactly once a year, so to remember the password at all, I either write it down or rely on the password-recovery scheme. On some systems, I have cycled through several strong passwords over a longer period than the authentication server remembers. Those really good passwords are too good to let go.
It is simply poor engineering to expect people to choose and remember passwords that are resistant to dictionary attacks. User training does not work: people will write down their passwords regardless.
Fortunately, dictionary attacks are rarely the problem. They are completely frustrated by getting out of the game: limit the number of attempts to a handful, then disable the account. Multiple-factor authentication and better recovery from compromise have also helped out.
This is not a new idea. I got my first bank ATM card in the early 1970s; it had a four-digit PIN. I do not recall if I was allowed to select the PIN myself, but it did not matter: it was my only PIN, and the service was unique and useful enough that I committed the PIN to memory. If I forgot it, the card would be eaten, or the account locked. This policy is still used in the U.S. banking system some four decades later, proof that it is working. It is also not a rare solution. Most authentication systems lock a user out after several tries.
More importantly, the threats have changed. Dictionary attacks on passwords are not nearly the problem they used to be. Today's threats include:
Client systems are hardly securewe have built our houses on sand. Why should any mouse click present a security threat?
Dictionary attacks can be launched on password wallets, SSH agent passphrases, PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) key rings, and stolen password databases. For strong passwords, words, rather than eye-of-newt strings, are easier to type and remember. From the Brown corpus's top 23,300 common English words, I generated several random passphrases in the spirit of STD-002 and xkcd:5
These give a search space of more than 43 bits, matching the estimated strength of today's strongest passwords. They also offer a chance to expand one's vocabulary. Alas, they probably fail most eye-of-newt rules.
My dream is that authentication might become a lot less odious, maybe even fun. Passwords and passphrases should be easier to type and include automatic correction for typing and "tapographical" errors (on smart phones). This can be done without loss of security.
Why do the eye-of-newt rules remain? Account unlocking is a problem, requiring relatively costly or unsecured secondary authentication efforts. In some cases, it would be appropriate to have someone elsefor example, an authorized spouse on a shared back accountenable the temporary authentication and subsequent password change. "Honey, I did it again" could be much easier than getting through to an 800 number on a weekend.
It would be nice to have more than one way to log into a site, each way having about the same strength. This gives the users a choice of authentication methods, with other methods as a backup login. (Mother's maiden name is not what I am talking about here. Secondary passwords tend to be much weaker and should not be used. Security history is full of attacks that force the defender to drop back to secondary, less effective defenses.)
If one tries the same password twice in a session, that should not count as two tries. We all make, or suspect that we make, typographical errors. Did I enter that password correctly? I will try again more carefully. This should not count as a second wish for the password troll.
I am not optimistic that these changes will happen rapidly, or even at all. There is a huge installed base out there. "We do the same thing as everybody else" is an effective legal defense against malfeasance, so why change things? (I hate the word legacy!)
Authentication systems are vital, and changes to them can produce widespread and embarrassing failures. It is not clear that easier authentication would provide a market advantage. Is a company less secure than another company because it is easier to log into? Will it gain market share by doing so?
In spite of all this, the system seems to be working. We are leaking military and industrial secrets to attackers all over the world, but millions of people use the Internet successfully every day, and it is an important part of the world's economy. Somehow, we get by.
Finally, I would like to see these systems engineered such that the user needs to remember only one security maxim: Don't be a moron. Do not pick a password that someone who knows you can guess in a few tries, or that someone watching you type can figure out easily.
Unlike the eye-of-newt password rules, this last rule makes sense to the casual user and is easy to remember. All we have to do is engineer the rest to be reasonably secure.
Security - Problem Solved?
Building Secure Web Applications
George V. Neville-Neil
LinkedIn Password Leak: Salt Their Hide
1. Cheswick, W. 2012; http://www.cheswick.com/ches/papers/std-002-results.xls; and http://www.cheswick.com/ches/papers/std-002-results.numbers.
4. Florêncio, D. and Herley C. Where do security policies come from?. In Proceedings of the Sixth Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security (2012). ACM, NY, DOI 10.1145/1837110.1837124. http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1837110.1837124.
5. xkcd; http://xkcd.com/936/.
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