Browser Password Managers: Threat Models

All major browsers have a built-in password manager. So we should use them, right?

I Do

  • I use my browser’s password manager because it’s convenient: with sync, I get all of my passwords on all of my devices.
  • This convenience means that I can use a different password for every website, improving my security.
  • This convenience means that my passwords can be long and hard to type, because I never have to do so.
  • This means that I don’t even know my own passwords for many sites, and because I can rely on my password manager to only fill my passwords on the sites to which they belong, I cannot succumb to a phishing attack.

Should You?

The easy answer is “Yes, use your browser’s password manager!

The more nuanced answer begins: “Tell me about your threat model?

As when evaluating almost any security feature, my threat model might not match your threat model, and as a consequence, our security choices might be different.

Here are the most relevant questions to consider when thinking about whether you should use a password manager:

  • Is a password manager available for your platform(s)?
  • What sort of attackers are you worried about?
  • What sort of websites do you log into?
  • Do you select strong, unique passwords?
  • Are your accounts protected with 2FA?
  • What sort of attacks are most likely?
  • What sort of attacks are possible?
  • How do you protect your devices?
  • What’s your personal tolerance for inconvenience?
  • Are you confident in the security of your password manager’s vendor?
  • If you sync passwords, are you confident in the security of the design of the sync system?

The answers to these questions might change your decisions about whether to use a password manager, and if so, whether you want to use the built-in password manager or use a password manager provided by a third-party.

For instance, if you’re sharing a Windows/Mac OS login account with someone you don’t trust, you should stop. If you cannot or don’t want to, you should not use a password manager, because there are trivial ways for a local user steal your passwords one-at-a-time and simple ways to steal them all at once. Of course, even if you’re not using a password manager, a co-user can simply use a keylogger to steal your passwords one-by-one as you type them.

Lock (Win+L) your computer when you’re not using it.

While browser passwords are encrypted on disk, they’re encrypted using a key available to any process on your PC, including any locally-running malware. Even if passwords are encrypted in a “vault” by a master key, they’ll be decrypted when loaded in the browser’s memory space and can be harvested after you unlock the vault. Locally-running malware is particularly dire if your threat model includes the possibility of a worm running rampant within your enterprise– it could infect all of your employees’ machines and steal all of their passwords in bulk in seconds. (Yes, dear reader, I know that you’re thinking of clever mechanisms to mitigate these sorts of attacks. I assure you I can defeat every practical idea you have. It’s a fundamental law of computing.)

Concern about instantaneous bulk egress of credentials has led the authors of security configuration guidance to recommend disabling browser password managers. For instance, the Edge Security Baseline and the Chrome STIG both suggest preventing users from using the password manager. (I personally think this is a poor tradeoff that increases the higher risk of individual users getting phished, but I don’t write the configuration guidance.)

Some tech elites advocate for using a 3rd-party password manager, and some users really like them. Most 3rd-party password managers are designed with broader feature sets to satisfy alternative threat models (including using master passwords to help protect against limited local attackers). Many also include additional conveniences like automatic generation of strong passwords and roaming of passwords to mobile platforms and apps. On the other hand, many external password manager applications are themselves a source of security vulnerabilities, and these products often end up growing extremely complicated due to the “Checkbox Wars” endemic to the security products industry.

Parting Advice

Passwords are a poor security mechanism, and should be phased out wherever possible.

When that’s not yet possible (because you don’t control the website): choose strong passwords, use a password manager if it satisfies your threat model, and enable 2FA if available (especially on your email accounts to which password recovery emails are sent).

-Eric

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