Authentication

Passwords continue to dominate the authentication landscape. In 2012, Bonneau et al.1 analyzed a broad collection of web authentication schemes designed to replace passwords. They demonstrated that passwords have a unique combination of usability, security, and deployability that has proven difficult to supplant. For these reasons, we believe that it is important that research be done that enhances the security of password-based authentication as we wait for a scheme that can finally replace passwords.

We have several efforts centered around strengthening password-based authentication. First, we are researching how to improve the usability and security of password managers—tools that help users generate and manage unique passwords for each of their online accounts. Second, we are updating existing browsers and operating systems to provide first-class support for passwords, eliminating many possible attack vectors against passwords (e.g., malware, password database leak). Third, we exploring how to speed up the adoption strong password password protocols—protocols that allow users to prove knowledge of their passwords without actually revealing those passwords, helping prevent a range of attacks (e.g., phishing)—by client-side and server-side developers.

In addition to these efforts to enhance passwords, we are also researching password alternatives such as multi-factor authentication.

  1. The Quest to Replace Passwords: A Framework for Comparative Evaluation of Web Authentication Schemes.”. Bonneau et al. 24th IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy. IEEE, 2012. 


Publications

Conferences

Abstract: Password managers have the potential to help users more effectively manage their passwords and address many of the concerns surrounding password-based authentication, however prior research has identified significant vulnerabilities in existing password managers. Since that time, five years has passed, leaving it unclear whether password managers remain vulnerable or whether they are now ready for broad adoption. To answer this question, we evaluate thirteen popular password managers and consider all three stages of the password manager lifecycle—password generation, storage, and autofill. Our evaluation is the first analysis of password generation in password managers, finding several non-random character distributions and identifying instances where generated passwords were vulnerable to online and offline guessing attacks. For password storage and autofill, we replicate past evaluations, demonstrating that while password managers have improved in the half-decade since those prior evaluations, there are still significant issues, particularly with browser-based password managers; these problems include unencrypted metadata, unsafe defaults, and vulnerabilities to clickjacking attacks. Based on our results, we identify password managers to avoid, provide recommendations on how to improve existing password managers, and identify areas of future research.
Abstract: Two-factor authentication (2FA) significantly improves the security of password-based authentication. Recently, there has been increased interest in Universal 2nd Factor (U2F) security keys-small hardware devices that require users to press a button on the security key to authenticate. To examine the usability of security keys in non-enterprise usage, we conducted two user studies of the YubiKey, a popular line of U2F security keys. The first study tasked 31 participants with configuring a Windows, Google, and Facebook account to authenticate using a YubiKey. This study revealed problems with setup instructions and workflow including users locking themselves out of their operating system or thinking they had successfully enabled 2FA when they had not. In contrast, the second study had 25 participants use a YubiKey in their daily lives over a period of four weeks, revealing that participants generally enjoyed the experience. Conducting both a laboratory and longitudinal study yielded insights into the usability of security keys that would not have been evident from either study in isolation. Based on our analysis, we recommend standardizing the setup process, enabling verification of success, allowing shared accounts, integrating with operating systems, and preventing lockouts.
Abstract: Passwords continue to dominate the authentication landscape in spite of numerous proposals to replace them. Even though usability is a key factor in replacing passwords, very few alternatives have been subjected to formal usability studies, and even fewer have been analyzed using a standard metric. We report the results of four within-subjects usability studies for seven web authentication systems. These systems span federated, smartphone, paper tokens, and email-based approaches. Our results indicate that participants prefer single sign-on systems. We report several insightful findings based on participants' qualitative responses: (1) transparency increases usability but also leads to confusion and a lack of trust, (2) participants prefer single sign-on but wish to augment it with site-specific low-entropy passwords, and (3) participants are intrigued by biometrics and phone-based authentication. We utilize the Systems Usability Scale (SUS) as a standard metric for empirical analysis and find that it produces reliable, replicable results. SUS proves to be an accurate measure of baseline usability. We recommend that new authentication systems be formally evaluated for usability using SUS, and should meet a minimum acceptable SUS score before receiving serious consideration.

Workshops

Abstract: Passwords continue to be an important means for users to authenticate themselves to applications, websites, and backend services. However, password theft continues to be a significant issue, due in large part to the significant attack surface for passwords, including the operating system (e.g., key loggers), application (e.g., phishing websites in browsers), during transmission (e.g., TLS man-in-the-middle proxies), and at password verification services (e.g., theft of passwords stored at a server). Relatedly, even though there is a large body of research on improving passwords, the massive number of application verification services that use passwords stymie the diffusion of improvements—i.e., it does not scale for each improvement to require an update to every application and verification service. To address these problems, we propose a new end-to-end password paradigm that transfers password functionality to two end-points, the operating system (entry, management, storage, and verification) and the password verification service (verification, and verification token storage). In this paradigm, passwords are never shared with applications or transmitted over the network, but are instead verified using zero-knowledge protocols. There are five key benefits of this approach that are not possible with the current password paradigm: (a) a minimal attack surface, (b) protection from password phishing, (c) protection from malware, (d) consistent password policies, and (e) the ability to more rapidly diffuse improvements from password research.
Abstract: Password authentication is the most prevalent form of authentication; however, passwords have numerous usability issues. For example, due to the large number and high complexity required of passwords, users frequently reuse and choose weak passwords. One way to address these problems is to centralize password management by using a password manager or single sign-on. While this centralizing approach can improve a user's security, it also magnifies the damage caused by a compromise of the user's master password. In this paper, we describe a new approach to enhance centralized password management using application-specific passwords. This approach prevents the compromise of a master password from immediately compromising all associated applications and instead, requires the attacker to conduct further online attacks against individual applications. We detail five possible system designs for application-specific passwords and describe our plans for user studies to test the acceptance and usability of this approach.
Abstract: There is a constant flow of new authentication schemes proposed in the literature. In the past, most proposed schemes were not evaluated empirically, though in recent years there has been an increase in the number of authentication systems that have undergone a user study. Still, most of these user studies employ ad-hoc metrics (e.g., task completion time) and a unique scenario. Bonneau et al. included usability criteria in their heuristic evaluation of various types of web authentication mechanisms.…
Abstract: Even with years of research into new authentication technologies, passwords still dominate the authentication landscape. This is due primarily to a combination of security, deployability, and usability that has been difficult to match. While password alternatives exist, their lack of widespread adoption indicates that for the foreseeable future passwords are here to stay.…