Let’s have a talk about TOTP

You probably noticed that I’m a firm believer in 2FA, and in particular on the usefulness of U2F against phishing. Unfortunately not all the services out there have upgraded to U2F to protect their users, though at least some of them managed to bring a modicum of extra safety against other threats by implementing TOTP 2FA/2SV (2-steps verification). Which is good, at least.

Unfortunately this can become a pain. In a previous post I have complained about the problems of SMS-based 2FA/2SV. In this post I’m complaining about the other kind: TOTP. Unlike the SMS, I find this is an implementation issue rather than a systemic one, but let’s see what’s going on.

I have changed my mobile phone this week, as I upgrade my work phone to one whose battery lasts more than half a day, which is important since my job requires me to be oncall and available during shifts. And as usual when this happens, I need to transfer my authenticator apps to the new phone.

Some of the apps are actually very friendly to this: Facebook and Twitter use a shared secret that, once login is confirmed, is passed onto their main app, which means you just need any logged in app to log in again and get a new copy. Neat.

Blizzard was even better. I have effectively copied my whole device config and data across with the Android transfer tool. The Battle.net authenticator copied over the shared key and didn’t require me to do anything at all to keep working. I like things that are magic!

The rest of the apps was not as nice though.

Amazon and Online.net allow you to add at any time a new app using the same shared key. The latter has an explicit option to re-key the 2FA to disable all older apps. Amazon does not tell you anything about it, and does not let you re-key explicitly — my guess is that it re-keys if you disable authentication apps altogether and re-enable it.

WordPress, EA/Origin, Patreon and TunnelBroker don’t allow you to change the app, or get the previously shared key. Instead you have to disable 2FA, then re-enable it. Leaving you “vulnerable” for a (hopefully) limited time. Of these, EA allows you to receive the 2SV code by email, so I decided I’ll take that over having to remember to port this authenticator over every time.

If you remember in the previous post I complained about the separate Authenticator apps that kept piling up for me. I realized that I don’t need as many: the login approval feature, which effectively Microsoft and LastPass provide, is neat and handy, but it’s not worth having two more separate apps for it, so I downgraded them to just use normal TOTP on the Google Authenticator app, which gets me the Android Wear support to see the code straight on my watch. I have particularly failed to remember when I last logged into a Microsoft product except for setting up the security parameters.

Steam on the other hand, was probably the most complete disaster of trying to migrate. Their app, similarly to the Battle.net one, is just a specially formatted TOTP with a shared key you’re not meant to see. Unfortunately to be able to move the Authenticator to a new phone, you need to disable it first — and you disable it from the logged-in app that has it enabled. Then you can re-enable it on a new phone. I assume there is some specific way to get recovery if that does not work, too. But I don’t count on it.

What does this all mean? TOTP is difficult, it’s hard for users, and it’s risky. Not having an obvious way to de-authenticate the app is bad. If you were at ENIGMA, you could have listened to a talk that was not recorded, on ground of the risky situations there described. The talk title was «Privacy and Security Practices of Individuals Coping with Intimate Partner Abuse». Among various topic that the talk touched upon, there was an important note on the power of 2FA/2SV for people being spied upon to gain certainty that somebody else is not logging in on their account. Not being able to de-authenticate TOTP apps goes against this certainty. Having to disable your 2FA to be able to change it to a new device makes it risky.

Then there are the features that become a compromise between usability and paranoia. As I said I love the Android Wear integration for the Authenticator app. But since the watch is not lockable, it means that anybody who could have access to my watch while I’m not attentive could have access to my TOTP. It’s okay for my use case, but it may not be for all. The Google Authenticator app also does not allow you to set a passcode and encrypt the shared keys, which means if you have enabled developer mode, run your phone unencrypted, or have a phone that is known vulnerable, your TOTP shared keys can be exposed.

What does this all mean? That there is no such thing as the perfect 100% solution that covers you against all possible threat models out there, but some solutions are better than others (U2F) and then compromises depend on what you’re defending against: a relative, or nation-states? If you remember I already went over this four years ago, and again the following year, and the one after talking about threat models. It’s a topic that I’m interested in, if it was not clear.

And a very similar concept was expressed by Zeynep Tufekci when talking about “low-profile activists”, wanting to protect their personal life, rather than the activism. This talk was recorded and is worth watching.

One thought on “Let’s have a talk about TOTP

  1. Services which make you only use 2FA with their application, such as Steam, worry me. Especially when you lose your phone, rather than willingly transfer. But technically hiding the 2FA code is better security.When using Gauth / FreeOTP, I always take down the 2FA Shared secret, and copy it to a keypass file, so that if anything were to happen to my phone, I can still get access.When I was using FFOS this was by far the best 2FA on the marketplace. A TOTP WebApp which enabled you to set a Password-Per-Service. https://marketplace.firefox…. Sadly it seems the dev has removed it from their site, and I can’t find their repo for their original code. http://web.archive.org/web/


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