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The Problems With Smartphone Password Managers

In today’s era of hyperbolic security warnings one of the easiest things that people can do to ‘protect’ themselves online is select super hard passwords to crack, stuff them in a centralized password manager, and then only have to remember a single password to access the rest in the manager. I’ve used a password manager for some time and there are real security benefits: specifically, if a single service that I’ve registered with is hacked then my entire online life isn’t compromised, just that one service.

Password manager companies recognize the first concern that most people have surrounding their services: how do the managers protect the sensitive information they’re entrusted with? The standard response from vendors tends to reference ‘strong security models and usage of cryptography. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is now quite apparent that the standard responses really can’t be trusted.

In a recent paper (.pdf), researchers interrogated the security status of password managers. What they found is, quite frankly, shocking and shameful. They also demonstrate the incredible need for third-party vetting of stated security capabilities.

The abstract for the paper is below but you should really just go read the whole paper (.pdf). It’s worth your time and if you’re not a math person you can largely skim over the hard math: the authors have provided a convenient series of tables and special notes that indicate the core deficiencies in various managers’ security stance. Don’t use a password manager that is clearly incompetently designed and, perhaps in the future, you will be more skeptical of the claims companies make around security.

Abstract:

In this paper we will analyze applications designed to facilitate storing and management of passwords on mobile platforms, such as Apple iOS and BlackBerry. We will specifically focus our attention on the security of data at rest. We will show that many password keeper apps fail to provide claimed level of protection

Access the paper (.pdf)

The Problems With Smartphone Password Managers