The Psychology of Password Managers

As I think more about the way people are likely to use a password manager, I think there’s real problems with the way master passwords are set up. As I write this, I’m deeply aware that I’m risking going into a space of “it’s logical that” without proper evidence.

Let’s start from the way most people will likely come to a password manager. They’ll be in an exploratory mood, and while they may select a good password, they may also select a simple one that’s easy to remember. That password, initially, will not be protecting very much, and so people may be tempted to pick one that’s ‘appropriate’ for what’s being protected.

Over time, the danger is that they will not think to update that password and improve it, but their trust in the password manager will increase. As their trust increases, the number of passwords that they’re protecting with a weak master password may also increase.

Now we get to changing the master password. Assuming that people can find it, how often will someone wake up and say “hey, I should change my master password?” Changing a master password is also scary. Now that I’ve accumulated hundreds of passwords, what happens if I forget my new password? (As it turns out, 1Password makes weekly backups of my password file, but I wasn’t aware of that. Also, what happens to the old files if I change my master password? Am I now exposed for both? That’s ok in the case that I’m changing out of caution, less ok if I’m changing because I think my master was exposed.)

Perhaps there’s room for two features here: first, that on password change, people could choose to have either master password unlock things. (Encrypt the master key with keys derived from both the old & new masters. This is no less secure than having backups available, and may address a key element of psychological acceptability.) You’d have to communicate that this will work, and let people choose. User testing that text would be fascinating.

A second feature might be to let people know how long they’ve been using the same master password, and gently encourage them to change it. This one is tricky mostly because I have no idea if it’s a good idea. Should you pick one super-strong master and use it for decades? Is there value to changing it now and again? Where could we seek evidence with which to test our instincts? What happens to long term memory as people age? Does muscle memory cause people to revert their passwords? (I know I’ve done it.) We could use a pattern like the gold bar to unobtrusively prompt.

A last element that might improve the way people use master passwords would be better browser integration. Having just gone to check, I was surprised how many sites my browser is tracking. Almost all of them were low value, and all of them now are. But why do we have two places that can store this, especially when one is less secure than the other. A browser API that allows a password manager to say “I’ve got this one” would be a welcome improvement.

Studying these ideas and seeing which ones are invalidated by data gathering would be cool. Talking to people about how they use their password managers would also be interesting work. As Bonneau has show, the quest to replace passwords is going to be arduous. Learning how to better live with what we have seems useful.

One thought on “The Psychology of Password Managers

  1. This is a good read from AgileBits:

    Regarding changing the master password:

    “We’ve all been told to change passwords on a regular basis, and there are still some circumstances under which that remains reasonable advice. But it is not a good idea with 1Password master passwords. Ideally you should pick a good master password at the outset and never change it.”

    Another good tip I read was to set the timer for locking the password manager to a very low number after a change of master password, to force yourself to learn it.

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