What to do for randomness today?

In light of recent news, such as “FreeBSD washing Intel-chip randomness” and “alleged NSA-RSA scheming,” what advice should we give engineers who want to use randomness in their designs?


My advice for software engineers building things used to be to rely on the OS to get it right. That defers the problem to a small number of smart people. Is that still the right advice, despite recent news? The right advice is pretty clearly not that a normal software engineer building in Ruby on Rails or asp.net should go and roll their own. It also cannot be that they spend days wading through debates. Experts ought to be providing guidance on what to do.

Is the right thing to hash together the OS and something else? If so, precisely what something else?

A Quintet of Facebook Privacy Stories

It’s common to hear that Facebook use means that privacy is over, or no longer matters. I think that perception is deeply wrong. It’s based in the superficial notion that people making different or perhaps surprising privacy tradeoffs are never aware of what they’re doing, or that they have no regrets.

Some recent stories that I think come together to tell a meta-story of privacy:

  • Steven Levy tweeted: “What surprised me most in my Zuck interview: he says the thing most on rise is ‘sharing with smaller groups.’” (Tweet edited from 140-speak). I think that sharing with smaller groups is a pretty clear expression that privacy matters to Facebook users, and that as Facebook becomes more a part of people’s lives, the way they use it will continue to mature. For example, it turns out:
  • 71% of Facebook Users Engage in ‘Self-Censorship’” did a study of people typing into the Facebook status box, and not hitting post. In part this may be because people are ‘internalizing the policeman’ that Facebook imposes:
  • Facebook’s Online Speech Rules Keep Users On A Tight Leash.” This isn’t directly a privacy story, but one important facet of privacy is our ability to explore unpopular ideas. If our ability to do so in the forum in which people talk to each other is inhibited by private contract and opaque rules, then our ability to explore and grow in the privacy which Facebook affords to conversations is inhibited.
  • Om Malik: “Why Facebook Home bothers me: It destroys any notion of privacy” An interesting perspective, but Facebook users still care about privacy, but will have trouble articulating how or taking action to preserve the values of privacy they care about.

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.

1Password & Hashcat

The folks at Hashcat have some interesting observations about 1Password. The folks at 1Password have a response, and I think there’s all sorts of fascinating lessons here.

The crypto conversations are interesting, but at the end of the day, a lot of security is unavoidably contributed by the master password strength. I’d like to offer up a simple contribution. Agilebits should make two non-cryptographic changes in addition to any crypto changes.

These relate to the human end of the issue, and how real humans make decisions. That is, picking a master password is a one time event, and even if there’s a strength meter, factors of memorability, typability, etc all come into play when the user selects a password when first installing 1Password.

Those human factors are not good for security, but I think they’re addressable.

First, the master password entry screens should display the same password strength meter that’s displayed everywhere else. It’s all well and good to discuss in a blog post that people need strong master passwords, but the software should give regular feedback about the strength of that master password. Displaying a strength meter each time it’s entered creates some small risk of information disclosure via shoulder-surfing, and adds pressure to make it stronger.

Second, they should make it easier to change the master password. I looked around, couldn’t figure out how to do so in a few minutes. [Update: It's in preferences, security. I thought I'd looked there, may have missed it.]

1password

If master passwords are so important, then it’s important for the software to help its customers get them right.

There’s an interesting link here to “Why Johnny Can’t Encrypt.” In that 1999 paper, Whitten and Tygar made the point that all the great crypto in PGP couldn’t protect its users if they didn’t make the right decisions, and making those decisions is hard.

In this case, the security of password vaults depends not only on the crypto, but also on the user interface. Figuring out the mental models that people have around password storage tools, and how the interface choices those tools make develop those mental models is an important area, and deserves lots of careful attention.

Gamifying Driving

P90115441 highRes 640x419

…the new points system rates the driver’s ability to pilot the MINI with a sporty yet steady hand. Praise is given to particularly sprightly sprints, precise gear changes, controlled braking, smooth cornering and U-turns executed at well-judged speeds. For example, the system awards maximum Experience Points for upshifts carried out within the ideal rev range and in less than 1.2 seconds. Super-slick gear changes prompt a “Perfect change up” message on the on-board monitor, while a “Breathtaking U-turn” and a masterful touch with the anchors (“Well-balanced braking”) are similarly recognised with top marks and positive, MINI-style feedback.

For more, see “MINI Connected Adds Driving Excitement Analyser.”

Now, driving is the most dangerous thing most of us do on a regular basis. Most Americans don’t get any supplemental driving instruction after they turn 17. So maybe there’s actually something to be said for a system that incents people to drive better.

I can’t see any possible issues with a game pushing people towards things that are undesirable in the real world. I mean, I’m sure that before suggesting a U-turn, the game will use the car’s adaptive cruise control radar to see what’s around, even if the car doesn’t have one.

Happy Data Privacy Day! Go check out PrivacyFix

It’s Data Privacy Day, and there may be a profusion of platitudes. But I think what we need on data privacy day are more tools to let people take control of their privacy. One way to do that is to check your privacy settings. Of course, the way settings are arranged changes over time, and checking your settings regularly is a drain.

Enter PrivacyFix.

PrivacyFix is a Firefox & Chrome plugin that you might want to check out. It looks at your Facebook and G+ settings, and helps you fix things. It also helps you send opt-out email to web site privacy addresses, which is awesome.

Not having a Facebook or G+ account, I can’t really test it. I do find the model of a plugin that works when you’re on their site (versus local UI) to be confusing. But maybe I’m not their target audience. Anyway, I did want to refer back to my Lessons from Facebook’s Stock Slide, in which I talked about intent versus identity.

Facebook tracks
Google tracks

I don’t know if PrivacyFix’s estimates of revenue are accurate. But unless they’re off by 2 orders of magnitude for each of Facebook (under-estimating) and Google (over-estimating), then wow.

Can Science Improvise?

My friend Raquell Holmes is doing some really interesting work at using improv to unlock creativity. There’s some really interesting ties between the use of games and the use of improv to get people to approach problems in a new light, and I’m bummed that I won’t be able to make this event:

Monday Dec 17th – 7:15 to 9:15pm
835 Market Street, Rm. 619, Downtown San Francisco State University Campus

Register at http://www.acteva.com//booking.cfm?bevaid=234451
In advance- $15 At the Door- $20

What happens when you combine the playfulness of improvisation with
the rigor of science? The Life Performance Coaching Center which
leads people from all walks of life in a performance-based approach to
human development is pleased to host Dr. Raquell M. Holmes founder of
improvscience. Holmes has been bringing the discoveries in human
development and performance to researchers and educators in many areas
of science including biology and computing sciences.

In this exploration for scientists and those interested in creativity
and development, participants are introduced to what the
improvisational arts bring to science. Learning to build with the
contributions of others and see opportunities for improvisational
conversation helps us to take risks and discover new ways of seeing
each other and our work.

Come and play as we break down the social barriers that can inhibit
creativity, exploration and discovery.

Helen Abel, LCSW, has worked with people to develop their lives for
over 30 years as a social worker, therapist and coach. She is on the
staff of the Life Performance Coaching Center where she leads the
popular Playground series {link if available} where people learn how
to use their capacity to create, perform and play. As a life coach she
helps people access these same skills to develop creative and new
kinds of conversations with their friends, family and colleagues.

Dr. Raquell Holmes is Director of Outreach, Recruitment and Retention
at the Center for Cell Analysis and Modeling at University of
Connecticut Health Center. She helps biologists to incorporate
computing and computational resources into their teaching and
research. Community building and improvisational theater are explicit
components of the majority of her National Science Foundation funded
projects. She founded improvscience to provide scientists with
opportunities to develop skills in leadership, collaboration and
innovation. Since its inception improvscience has worked with over a
thousand professionals in Science, Technology, Engineering and
Mathematics education and research.

When an interrupt is important

So it’s cool that this “S.M.A.R.T” stuff tells the computer when the hard drive is failing. The next step in user interface is to take the message out of /Applications/Utilities/Disk Utility and into an interruptive UI, so that I don’t discover this problem when I happen to get an extra drive for backup.

I know Apple knows how to interrupt the user when it matters to them, because iTunes always gives me two chances to enter my password so it can auto-update things. Maybe they’re hoping I won’t notice this one and just figure I need a new machine:

Disk Utility
Sigh.

Does 1Password Store Passwords Securely?

In ““Secure Password Managers” and “Military-Grade Encryption” on Smartphones: Oh, Really?” Andrey Belenko and Dmitry Sklyarov write quite a bit about a lot of password management tools. This is admirable work, and I’m glad BlackHat provided a forum for it. However, as a user of 1Password, I was concerned to read the following about that program:

However, because PKCS7 padding is used when encrypting database encryption key, it is possible to verify password just by computing KEK (using MD5 hash function), decrypting last block of encrypted database key, and checking if it equals to 16 bytes with value 0×10 (this will be the PKCS7-compliant padding when encrypting data whose length is exactly N blocks of underlying cipher). Thus, very fast password recovery attack is possible, requiring one MD5 computation and one AES trial decryption per password.

As a result of this design issue, password guessing against passwords [stored by 1Password for iPhone] is estimated (by Belenko and Sklyarov) as 15 Million per second. This is the 3rd worst performance out of a group of 11, and 3,000-fold worse than the best performer in the table (Strip Lite Password Manager, at 5,000 per second).

The folks at Agile Bits, makers of 1Password took the time to blog about the paper, and accept the implications of the work in “Strong Security Requires Strong Passwords.”

However, I think they misunderstand the paper and the issue when they write:

The main reason the password can be determined so quickly is because 6 characters provide relatively few possible password combinations.

I believe the main reason for the issue is because of the way in which 1Password has chosen to store passwords. They alude to this further down in the post when they write:

With that said, as Dmitry and Andrey point out, 1Password could do more to slow the password discovery process, thereby making it take even longer. For example, on the desktop (both Windows and Mac), 1Password uses PBKDF2 to significantly slow down attackers. Currently this is not available on iOS as we needed to support older devices. The next major release of 1Password will only support iOS 5 and at that time we will be incorporating these additional defences.

I still don’t think that’s an adequate response. Several of their competitors on iOS use their own implementation of PBKDF2. Now that’s a risky thing to do, and I’m aware that it might be expensive to implement and test, and the impact of a bug in such code might reasonably be pretty high. So it’s not a slam dunk to do so, in the general case. But in this case, it appears that Apple ships an open source version of PBKDF2: http://opensource.apple.com/source/CommonCrypto/CommonCrypto-55010/Source/API/CommonKeyDerivation.c. So the risk is far lower than creating a new implementation. Therefore, I think Agile Bits should change the way it validates passwords, and incorporate PBKDF2 into all versions of 1Password soon.

They also state:

1Password for iPhone will no longer allow items to be protected by just the PIN code. The PIN code was meant for less sensitive items and we always expected the Master Password protection to be enabled on important items. To simplify things, all items will be protected with the Master Password, just like on iPad, Mac, and Windows.

I understand the choice to do this, and move to stronger protection for all items. At the same time, I like the PIN-only protection for my low-value password. Entering passwords on a phone is a pain. It’s not an easy trade-off, and a 4-digit PIN is always going to be easy to brute force with modern CPUs, however much salting and stretching is applied. I’m capable of making a risk management decisions, but I also understand that many people may feel that Agile Bits wouldn’t offer the choice if it wasn’t secure. I respect the choice that Agile Bits is making to force stronger protection on all their customers.

In summary, 1Password is not storing passwords as securely as they could, and if your phone is stolen, or your phone backups are accessed, those choices leave your passwords at more risk than competing products. I don’t think the fixes to this require iOS5. I think the right thing for Agile Bits to do is to ship an update with better protection against brute force attacks for all their customers, and to do so soon.

[Update 3 (April 10) Agile Bits has released an update which implements 10K PBKDF2 iterations.]

[Update 2: 1Password has now stated that they will do this, adding PBKDF2 to all versions for iOS, which had been the only platform impacted by these issues. They have a hard balance of speed versus security to make, and I encourage them to think it through and test appropriately, rather than rushing a bad fix. ]

[Updated to clarify that this applies only to the iPhone version of 1Password.]

Threat Modeling and Risk Assessment

Yesterday, I got into a bit of a back and forth with Wendy Nather on threat modeling and the role of risk management, and I wanted to respond more fully.

So first, what was said:

(Wendy) As much as I love Elevation of Privilege, I don’t think any threat modeling is complete without considering probability too.
(me) Thanks! I’m not advocating against risk, but asking when. Do you evaluate bugs 2x? Once in threat model & once in bug triage?
(Wendy) Yes, because I see TM as being important in design, when the bugs haven’t been written in yet. :-)

I think Wendy and I are in agreement that threat modeling should happen early, and that probability is important. My issue is that I think issues discovered by threat modeling are, in reality, dealt with by only a few of Gunnar’s top 5 influencers.

I think there are two good reasons to consider threat modeling as an activity that produces a bug list, rather than a prioritized list. First is that bugs are a great exit point for the activity, and second, bugs are going to get triaged again anyway.

First, bugs are a great end point. An important part of my perspective on threat modeling is that it works best when there’s a clear entry and exit point, that is, when developers know when the threat modeling activity is done. (Window Snyder, who knows a thing or two about threat modeling, raised this as the first thing that needed fixing when I took my job at Microsoft to improve threat modeling.) Developers are familiar with bugs. If you end a strange activity, such as threat modeling, with a familiar one, such as filing bugs, developers feel empowered to take a next step. They know what they need to do next.

And that’s my second point: developers and development organizations triage bugs. Any good development organization has a way to deal with bugs. The only two real outputs I’ve ever seen from threat modeling are bugs and threat model documents. I’ve seen bugs work far better than documents in almost every case.

So if you expect that bugs will work better then you’re left with the important question that Wendy is raising: when do you consider probability? That’s going to happen in bug triage anyway, so why bother including it in threat modeling? You might prune the list and avoid entering silly bugs. That’s a win. But if you capture your risk assessment process and expertise within threat modeling, then what happens in bug triage? Will the security expert be in the room? Do you have a process for comparing security priority to other priorities? (At Microsoft, we use security bug bars for this, and a sample is here.)

My concern, and the reason I got into a back and forth, is I suspect that putting risk assessment into threat modeling keeps organizations from ensuring that expertise is in bug triage, and that’s risky.

(As usual, these opinions are mine, and may differ from those of my employer.)

[Updated to correct editing issues.]