Passwords May Never Die for Legal Reasons

Joe Stanganelli, Founder and Principal, Beacon Hill Law | 10/10/2013 | 62 comments

Joe Stanganelli
"Passwords are dead," a Google information security manager decreed at last month's TechCrunch Disrupt. Other pundits have come to the same conclusion. However, these reports are greatly exaggerated.

Admittedly, passwords can be problematic, as this message board comment from E2 Editor-in-Chief Sara Peters illustrates:

You can set up the system so that users must use a password that's more than 8 characters long and has a mixture of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters; and that it be changed every three months, and when you change it, it can't be the same as any password you've had previously. That's not hard.

Not hard? Really? Because just thinking about that makes me want to shoryuken the nearest IT manager so hard that he goes back in time and changes his major to art history.

Besides, eight-character passwords are easily cracked, because they typically represent common password patterns. Real password protection comes from length and uncommon patterns. And, yes, a hacker might still crack a long and unusual password if he gets his hands on a list of encrypted hashes, but even that can be guarded against with honeypots.

But, as password naysayers whine, who wants to memorize a long password? So they are dead, right?

Biometrics have become hot in security circles. But a closer look shows that they simply don't compare to passwords. One reason is flexibility. Password choices are limited only by the imagination, but a person has only so many biometric markers. Dave Aitel, CEO of the penetration testing firm Immunity Inc., wrote in a USA Today article, "It's silly to only have 10 possible passwords your whole life (20, if you count toes)."

Worse, biometrics are generally neither temporary nor secret. Unlike a password, biometrics are easily observable (and therefore replicable) by others, and there's far less you can do about it if one gets compromised. "Today, if your Twitter account gets hacked, you just change the password -- but if you are using a biometric, you will be stuck with that hacked password for the rest of your life," Aitel wrote. "We need to keep that in mind before we start using biometrics to authenticate universal sign-ins and financial transactions."

Biometrics may be more hackable than passwords. Fingerprints, irises, and even chaotic heartbeat patterns can all be mimicked. Fingerprints, once the go-to biometric, have become disfavored since hackers revealed how easy it is to dupe the iPhone 5s fingerprint scanner.

Perhaps the best indicator that passwords are still one's best security bet is the arrest of Ross William Ulbricht, (a.k.a. Dread Pirate Roberts), the alleged Silk Road drug broker. Before arresting Ulbricht, FBI agents followed him -- to the San Francisco Public Library. What were they waiting for? They wanted Ulbricht to open his laptop and enter his passwords. Only after Ulbricht had done that did they swoop in to arrest him and seize his (now conveniently decrypted) laptop for evidence.

Had Ulbricht used a fingerprint scanner or other biometric-based security, law enforcement agents could easily have used his biometric markers to access the machine. Such markers are neither secret nor protected by the Constitution. However, compelling suspects to fork over a password is not always so easy. The US government has repeatedly had to go to court to compel a defendant to reveal a computer password, and it has not always succeeded. This is because a suspect's fingerprints and certain other biometric indicators are physical evidence, so they are not protected by the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination -- unlike, sometimes, the humble password.

The poor password isn't perfect, and two-factor identification combining a password with a hard token may be better (though a man-in-the-middle phishing attack can defeat that modus operandi). Still, if the full force and might of the US federal government can't always decrypt a perp's password-protected hard drive, declaring the death of the password is not just premature, but downright irresponsible.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
Page 1 / 7   >   >>
Sara Peters   Passwords May Never Die for Legal Reasons   10/31/2013 2:20:36 PM
Re: Does anyone know
@shehzadi  I agree that there are a lot of benefits to using multi-factor authentication. Any theories as to why so few companies actually do it?
Sara Peters   Passwords May Never Die for Legal Reasons   10/31/2013 2:15:36 PM
Re: Passords are like zombies, they never really die
@kstaron  Y'know I don't necessarily think that passwords SHOULD go away -- I just think that they should be paired up with a second factor of authentication. A hardware token or a biometric thing.
kstaron   Passwords May Never Die for Legal Reasons   10/29/2013 2:12:23 PM
Passords are like zombies, they never really die
While boimetrics have thier place, I doubt passwords are ever really going to go away. As for remembering them, the one I remember the easiest was a 12 character random thing given to me for a specific program. After having to type that thing 20 times in the first two days I remembered it for months after I stopped working on the program.
shehzadi   Passwords May Never Die for Legal Reasons   10/24/2013 9:18:12 AM
Re: Does anyone know
@Xrecrf456 I think you are right. I also agree that password is not the only viable option available for security. There are other options that are available right now and many will be available a sthe time progress and technology developed. I am of the opinion that we need to implement best possible options at our disposal to keep tha hackers guessing and making them feel disturbed. Biometrics, password and RFIDs can be utilized together
shehzadi   Passwords May Never Die for Legal Reasons   10/24/2013 9:09:35 AM
Re: Does anyone know
@Waleed I buy your opinion. I have gone through RFIDs, another security option for physical access control. Do you think can it be utilized as a security option in addition to password and biometrics?
Hayder   Passwords May Never Die for Legal Reasons   10/24/2013 9:05:56 AM
Re: Does anyone know
@Waleed I agree there. I think using biometrics can be an option worth using but using password or biomtrics individually will not serve the purpose. I think if utilized in layers they can be the most effective option. What do you say?
SunitaT   Passwords May Never Die for Legal Reasons   10/24/2013 5:23:44 AM
Re : Passwords May Never Die for Legal Reasons
@ LuFu, well this is naïve and impracticable in true sense of the word. Mutually assured destruction is a very good and effective idea to prevent opponents from making moves against each other but then there must be some doable mechanism as well. Assigning same password to everyone will not reduce hacking. Instead it will prompt people to go offline with their important data that is like going reverse in time.
SunitaT   Passwords May Never Die for Legal Reasons   10/24/2013 5:23:40 AM
Re : Passwords May Never Die for Legal Reasons
Far from being dead, password is the most reliable and most secure security measure because of all what is said in the article. It is rightly being said if Federal Government with all its might can't hack into suspect's password protected hard drive, it must be real difficult. While passwords are still hack-able and complex long passwords are difficult to remember, these are the only secure choice we have.
Waleed   Passwords May Never Die for Legal Reasons   10/21/2013 2:27:17 AM
Re: Does anyone know
@Hayder I couldn't agree more. With passwords you have this sense of ownership. It's a wordphrase that you've memorized and only you know. And am I the only one who thinks that biometrics will increase crime rate?
xrecrf456   Passwords May Never Die for Legal Reasons   10/16/2013 11:14:17 PM
Re: Does anyone know
@ Nomi :

Yes I agree with Nomi because there are many options available for security. It does not necessarily states that just because passwords are there your systems are secured, since the technology is so developed, there can be plenty of ways to hack your information. What matters at the end is a strong security system to protect your data which should be implemented by humans.
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