Today I spent an hour with a bunch of academics. Each of the panellists had to talk for a few minutes to set the scene. I decided to talk about the worst usability disaster ever, namely passwords.
The problem with passwords is that we pin all our security on them. Although I can imagine a future world where we pin our security on other things, like strong credentials, I still wonder how that world really looks?
In particular, when I buy the latest Mac, how do I get it all signed up with all these credentials? It seems to me that the only usable answer to that question is that I fetch them from the cloud. How do I do that? Ultimately, with a password of some kind. Yes, you can back it up with a dongle or something, but when I lose that, how do I get a new one? I call you and give you … a password (of course I include my mother’s maiden name, my postcode, my date of birth, the name of my first and most beloved hamster and all that other nonsense as passwords). And if I only ever do this every couple of years, how easy is it to persuade me to do it wrong? Pretty damn easy, if you ask me. And you did.
So, where does this leave us? Users must have passwords, so why fight it? Why not admit that its where we have to be and make it a familiar (but secure) process, so that users can actually safely use passwords, phishing-free?
The answer to this is deeply sad. It is because we have done a fantastic job on usability of passwords. They’re so usable that anyone will type their password anywhere they see the word “password” with a box next to it. Phishing is utterly trivial because we have trained the world to expect to be phished every time they see a new website.
Of course, we can fix this cryptographically – that’s easy. But let’s say we did that. How do we stop the user from ever typing their password into a phishable box from this day forward? So long as they only ever type the password into the crypto gadget that does the unphishable protocol, they are safe, no matter who asks them to log in. But as soon as they type it into a text box on a web page, they’re screwed.
So, this is why passwords are the worst usability disaster ever.
Anyway, now to the title. Suppose we get to this utopia, an academic suggested, we’d still be screwed because passwords don’t scale. Because, of course, we need a different password for each site we log in to.
Well, no. If your password is unphishable, then it is obviously the case that it can be the same everywhere. Or it wouldn’t be unphishable. The only reason you need a password for each site is because we’re too lame to fix the real problem. Passwords scale just fine. If it wasn’t for those pesky users (that we trained to do the wrong thing), that is.