Designing My Password Manager

So while at the (in my opinion excellent) Enigma, Tavis decided to nerd snipe me into thinking of how would I design a password manager. This because he knows (and disagree with) my present choice of using LastPass as my password manager of choice, despite the existence of a range of opensource password managers.

The main reason why I have discarded the choice of the available password managers is that, in my opinion, they all miss the main point of what a password manager should be: convenient. Password reuse is a problem because it’s more convenient than using dozens, maybe hundreds of different passwords for all the different services. An easy to use password manager is even more convenient than reusing password.

The first problem I found with effectively all of the opensource password managers I know of just use a single file-blob, and leave to you the problem of syncing it. The best I have seen was one software providing integration with Dropbox, Google Drive and ownCloud to sync the blob around, just as long as you don’t make conflicting changes on different devices. To me, the ability to make independent changes to services is actually a big requirement. This means that I would be using a file format that allows encrypting “per row”, both the keys and the values (because you don’t want to leak which accounts the user registered on, if the file is leaked). I would probably gravitate around something like the Bigtable format.

Another problem, which is present in Chrome SmartLock too, is the lack of support for what LastPass call “equivalent domains”. Due to many silly reasons, particularly if you travel a lot or if you live in different countries, you end up collecting a long list of websites using either separate domain names, or at least different TLDs. An example of this is Amazon, that use a constellation of different domains, but all share the same account management (except for Amazon Japan). A sillier example for this are Yelp and TripAdvisor, that decide to change your TLDs depending on the IP address you’re coming from, despite being the kind of services you would use particularly outside your usual country.

Admittedly, as Tavis suggested, these should be solved by the services themselves, using a single host for login/identity management. I do not expect this to happen any time soon. My previous proposal for this was defining equivalence as part as a well known configuration file (together with other improvements to password management). I now have some personal introspection questions about this, because I wonder if there is a privacy risk in sending requests to other domain to validate the reciprocal equivalence configurations. So I think I’ll leave this up for debate for later.

The next design bit is figuring out how should the password generator behave. We already have a number of good password generators of different types, including software implementations of diceware passwords (despite the site repeatedly telling you not to use computer random generators — to add to the inconvenience), and xkcdpass, that generate passwords that are easier to remember or at least to type. I think that a good password manager should allow for more than just the random-bunch-of-characters passwords that LastPass uses.

In particular, for me, I have a few websites for which I use passwords generated by xkcdpass, because I need to actually type in the password, rather than use the password manager autofill capabilities. This is the case of Sony and Nintendo accounts, that need to be typed from consoles, and of Telegram, as I need to type the password on my watch to receive messages there. Unfortunately implementing this is probably going to be an UX nightmare — one of the reason being the ability to select different wordlists. Non-English speakers are likely interested in using their own language for it. Or even the English speakers that are not afraid of other languages, and may decide to throw off a possible attacker anyway.

Ideally, the password generation settings would be stored on a domain-by-domain basis, so that if a certain website only allows numbers in its passcode, or it has a specific character limit, the same setting is used to generated a password if it’s ever breached. This may sound minor, but to me it would be so much more of a time (and frustration) saver, that it would easily become a killer feature.

But all of these idea fall to nothing without good, convenient, and trustworthy client implementations. Right now one of the many weak spots of LastPass is its Chrome extension (and Firefox too). A convenient password manager, though, ought to be able to integrate with the browser and, since it’s 2018 after all, with your phone. Unfortunately, here is where any opensource offering can’t really help as much as we would all like: it still relies (hugely) on trust. As far as I can tell, there is no way to make absolutely certain that the code of a Chrome extension on the Web Store, or of an Android app on either Play Store or F-Droid, corresponds exactly with a certain source distribution.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a real problem right now, with closed source extensions too. You need to trust the extension is not injecting malicious content in your webpage, or exfiltrating data out of your browser session. Earlier this year a widely used Chrome extension was reported as malicious, but it wasn’t until that was identified that it was removed from Chrome’s repository. At least I can have a (maybe underserved) trust in LogMeIn not to intentionally ruin their reputation by pushing actively malicious code to the Store. Would I say the same for a random single developer maintaining their widely used extension?

What this means to me is that building a good replacement for LastPass is not just a technical problem that needs to be solved by actively syncing with cloud storage services… it’s a problem of social trust, and that requires quite a bit of thought from many actors of the market: browser vendors, device manufacturers, and developers, which I’m not sure is currently happening. So I don’t hold my breath, and keep at compromises. I made mine with my threats in mind, you should make yours with what concerns you the most.

2 thoughts on “Designing My Password Manager

  1. Developer minded people can somewhat conveniently use pass. Each of your passwords is stored in a text file which is individually encrypted with GPG. Changes, conflicts, and syncing are “resolved” using git. pass leaks information about which websites you’ve stored in the password manager but at least you avoid the “one big blob” issue.The whole thing lives in the terminal well outside of your web browser. It’s not super convince, but it’s not a big issue for developers who live and breath the terminal for hours every day.The main disadvantage are that it’s hard to manage git, gpg, and copy–paste passwords on mobile. You can combine different applications and cobble it together in a way that makes pass usable on mobile, but it will take you some time to get it right.That all being said: I use LastPass, but I can’t say that I like it.

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  2. Best password managers, i this Blog you describe proper information, thanks for sharing wonderful information.

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