Making sense of the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (Part II: What's good about passwords?)

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As I said earlier, a lot of the use cases used to motivate NSTIC are about the inadequacy of existing 1-1 authentication mechanisms. As you can imagine, a huge amount of research has gone into trying to figure out how to build a set of systems which don't have these drawbacks, but the results haven't been entirely satisfactory. The following is an attempt to briefly survey the space and why it's proven so difficult. To be honest, I'm getting a little tired of writing this kind of thing (an older attempt to do this in longer form for the non-Web context can be found here), but it has to get done if you're to make sense of the rest.

It's probably easiest to get a sense of what the problem is by looking at deficiencies in the existing password-type systems on the Web. As you all know, what happens now is that you go to some site—which, if you're lucky, uses HTTPS— and it gives you a form (i.e., text fields on the page) to enter your username and password. This user interface is completely under control of the Web site, and to a first order just looks like any other Web form to the browser1 You type that stuff in, hit return or click on the submit button, and the browser sends the username and password to the server, which verifies them and either lets you log in or not. [Technical note: each page you fetch/link you click on a site is sort of an independent transaction. The site uses web cookies to string the transactions to gether so you don't have to type your username/password on each page.] There's plenty to hate here, but before we talk about that, it's worth talking about the stuff that's good.

Portability
From the user's perspective one of the most important properties is portability. Say I buy a new machine or I want to use a kiosk somewhere: as long as I remember my password (this is a lot easier if I use the password monkey10 everywhere than if I generate a random 16-character password for each site), then I just sit down, type it in, and I'm good to go. Even if I have a really long password, I can write it down on a piece of paper which will survive the failure of any particular device. This sounds simple, but it's actually a feature that many of the proposed fixes for this problem don't have. To give you just one example, pretty much all the systems that involve you having a long-term client-side public key then require some way to haul that key around. There have been a lot of proposed answers to this (USB tokens, smartphones, etc.) but none of them have come close to taking off.

Backward Compatibility
Say you've just invented a really good remote authentication technique. What now? Well, if it involves modifying the client, then you've got a real problem since Web browsers turn over comparatively slowly (10% of the net is still running IE 6). So, even if you manage to convince all the browser manufacturers to put your system in, you're looking at years before you can count on everyone being able to authenticate with it, and hence before you can use it exclusively. Similar reasoning applies when you need to modify the server, since any new mechanism on the client is useless without server support. The only lowest common denominator mechanism is passwords through Web forms, which is why so many new authentication systems have been structured as enhancements to that basic mechanism, either on the server side (e.g., if you don't recognize this image, don't proceed) or on the client side (e.g., PwdHash) so that they can be deployed unilaterally.

Site Control of Look and Feel
Passwords in web forms aren't the only authentication mechanism that was intended when the Web was first designed. Indeed, HTTP supports not one but two password-based authentication mechanisms, "Basic" (i.e., passwords in the clear in the HTTP header) and "Digest" (i.e., challenge response in the HTTP header). Neither of these sees much usage, most likely due to the hideous user interface they typically have, which involves the browser bringing up a modal or semi-modal dialog as you first go to the page (generally before you see anything on the page). It turns out that this is not what site operators want, which is instead to control the UI experience, including offering you first-time registration without an annoying dialog box, password recovery, branding, etc. In other words, they want to brand it, and aren't really interested in authentication mechanisms which don't offer that ability.

Next Up: What's bad about passwords?
While passwords have some useful features, if they were really great then we wouldn't be having this discussion. Next, I'll talk about some of the obvious drawbacks, but as you're reading that you should remember that while annoying none of them have been severe enough to push us over the edge into actually discarding passwords for most applications.

1. The exception here is that there is a special indicator that tells the browser that the password field should display dots or stars or whatever instead of your real password.

1 Comments

If this is what's good, I can't wait for your "what's bad" article.

I agree with your portability comment, and would also point out that user experience with passwords is an important advantage for non-sophisticated users. It's also important not to disenfranchise users whose only internet access is at a library or café and depend on portability.

While a lot of stakeholders are concerned about higher levels of assurance for critical infrastructure and health care applications, we also need to be concerned about transaction friction that occurs if an inappropriately-high (and harder to use) authentication is used for low value transactions. If I'm buying a song online for 99 cents and that requires me to go to another room where I left my token, perhaps I'll decide instead that I don't need that song after all. Facilitating low-value transactions is important because of their volume, and fortunately the Strategy addresses that need in several places.

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