Eight wrong reasons why you are storing passwords for clear text recovery

This post is more than 13 years old.

Posted at 08:00 on 29 April 2011

The recent data loss by Sony of seventy million PlayStation users’ personal details was a serious lapse. They have assured us that their users’ credit card details were encrypted, though Graham Cluley of Sophos has asked questions about exactly what kind of encryption they were using.

A more serious issue is that they admitted that users’ passwords were compromised. This can mean only one thing: they were storing passwords in a form that could be recovered to plain text. The press doesn’t tend to make as much noise about passwords as about credit cards, which is a pity, because passwords are at least as valuable to a fraudster, if not more, for the simple reason that the overwhelming majority of people re-use passwords on multiple websites, including high-value ones such as their e-mail and their bank.

It’s a sobering reminder to all of us web developers that we should not be implementing plain text password recovery, period. It is inexcusable. And, it could be argued, illegal in some jurisdictions.

It is inexcusable because it is a security compromise that is totally unnecessary. Yet it is sometimes mandated by pointy-haired bosses and clueless clients despite developers’ objections. There was a question on Stack Overflow a while ago asking how you can ethically approach storing passwords for later plain text retrieval. I replied that you can’t.

Here are some of the excuses that people make for storing passwords in plain text.

1. “My site is small and obscure, nobody is going to try hacking it.”

If you are thinking that way, I have bad news for you. Hackers love small, obscure websites precisely because their developers think exactly that, and they are consequently riddled with SQL injection vulnerabilities exposing plain text passwords. Sites like that are low hanging fruit to a malicious user.

Furthermore, hackers operate botnets that trawl the Internet probing every website they come across for security holes. Even the smallest, most obscure website should expect to be probed by malicious scanners weekly if not daily.

How small and obscure is “smallest and most obscure”? How about my own blog, circa December 2005? At the time, it had been going for only seven months, and since I was (a) a lot more reserved and introverted back then than I am now, and (b) a complete blogging newbie, I had kept a very low profile with it up to then. Only half a dozen or so of my close friends knew of its existence. I had even turned off the feature to ping Technorati and other blog aggregators. Yet there it was, on the receiving end of an SMTP injection probe.

Bottom line: if you are collecting user registrations, you are not small and obscure. Period.

2. “Users’ logins to my site are a low-value asset.”

No they are not.

No matter how much we nag them, how much we tell them to be careful, people will still re-use passwords. There are far too many people who, when you tell them they need to use KeePass or something similar, will just shrug and say to you, “Oh, that’s too complicated for me, I’m not a computer person.” They regard good password practices as a tinfoil hat, because, after all, you’re not Fort Knox.

Consequently, if your password database gets breached, your attackers have not just got away with your users’ logins on your site. They have got away with your users’ logins on Facebook, eBay, PayPal, GMail, and their bank accounts. Give an identity thief access to your clients’ e-mail, and you have given them access to their entire life.

Far from being a low-value asset, your users’ logins are the most valuable asset that you are dealing with. They are arguably even more valuable than their credit card numbers.

3. “A password reset is harder from a usability perspective than a password reminder.”

No it is not. Not if you implement it correctly.

People only think that a password reset is harder to use because they think you have to e-mail your users a new password, and it usually ends up looking like transmission line noise. But there is a better alternative.

E-mail your users a one-time, time-limited link to a page on your website that lets them choose a new password then automatically logs them in once they’ve done so. This is actually easier to use than either a password reset or a password reminder, since one click from their e-mail client opens their web browser straight to the “choose a new password” page.

If you want to see this in action, this is how Amazon does it. So does Twitter. So does any other website that takes security seriously these days.

4. “As an administrator, I need to be able to log on as any other user, so that I can troubleshoot if need be.”

Regardless of whether this user story is a good idea or not (it might be controversial if, for instance, you are Facebook and word of it gets out), you do not need to know the other user’s password in order to facilitate it.

All you need is a button on your user administration page that allows an already authenticated superuser to switch identity to the user in question with a single click of the mouse. It’s exactly the same principle as the Unix su command.

Any web developer who isn’t able to implement this is, quite frankly, incompetent.

5. “Two-way encryption is sufficient.”

No it is not.

If you want to allow your users to recover their passwords through your web front end, your web front end has to be able to decrypt them. If your end users can decrypt their passwords, there is always the possibility that a malicious user can do likewise. If your code has a bug in it that lets a malicious user view passwords to which they are not entitled, that would totally nullify the effect of the encryption. Furthermore, you would have to put both your public key and your private key on a public-facing web server, making it all the easier for an attacker to get hold of the means to decrypt your users’ passwords.

6. “But what about credit cards? You need two-way encryption for them, surely?”

Your users’ credit cards should not be recoverable to plain text by the web server either.

If you look at how Amazon stores your credit card information, you will see that they don’t display it back to you once you’ve typed it in, apart from the last four digits. Yet they need access to this information in order to bill you correctly. So how do they do it?

The answer is simple. The web server only has access to their public key. They put the private key (and their back-end administration system) on a completely different server in a completely different subnet, separated from their web servers by firewalls with strict security.

If you want to store credit card details for later processing, this is what you must do. If you can’t do so, you should use a third-party payment provider such as PayPal, send their credit card details to them using web services, and do not store them in your own database.

Despite this, this is still not as secure as a one-way salted hash, and there is still a chance that an attacker could steal your users’ credit card database and the private key. But in this case there is a limit to how
much security you can practically apply without rendering the system unusable. This limit does not apply to passwords, since clear text recovery, as we have seen, is completely unnecessary for passwords.

7. “You need to do a risk assessment before deciding what security is appropriate.”

This one came up on a Stack Overflow discussion a while ago and I just about hit the roof when I saw it.

For crying out loud people, this isn’t a hypothetical, theoretical scenario! It is a scenario that has happened in practice, over and over and over again. It is a scenario that is keeping seventy million PlayStation users awake at night at this very moment. The risks are well known and well documented. If your users’ passwords get compromised, hackers can take control not only of their login to your dinky little website, but also to Facebook, PayPal, their e-mail, their bank. You are exposing them to the risk of identity theft, which can get pretty nasty.

Besides, a risk assessment is only meaningful if you can demonstrate that there is a convincing business case for any security compromises that you have to make. And what compromises do you have to make in order to avoid sending plain text passwords? There aren’t any! I’ve explained above just why the perceived disadvantages are not disadvantages of the sort, and how recoverable passwords are totally unnecessary for a user-friendly, flexible authentication system.

8. “The client/my boss insists on it.”

The best way to approach this is to show them how Twitter and Amazon handle login recovery (“show, don’t tell”), build a prototype, and point to some real-world examples of where things went wrong -- the 4chan/Christian dating website that I mentioned a couple of years back is as good an example as any.

If, in spite of this, and being advised that they are probably breaking the law in requiring plain text passwords, they still insist on having passwords recoverable to plain text, you are likely to have other problems with your client. The Daily WTF kind of problems.

If you end up in this kind of situation, sack your client. Or start looking for another job if you’re a permie. Now.

So are there any valid reasons why you can be storing passwords for clear text recovery?

Yes, there is one. And only one. It is this.

You have inherited a legacy application, written by someone else, that has so much bad design and technical debt that it is infeasible to migrate your passwords to an encrypted version.

If you end up in such a situation, get the code under source control before you do anything else, to cover your back if nothing else. Advise the client that they are storing passwords dangerously. Warn them of the implications. Propose an alternative, and quote for it. And recommend that they make it a priority.