Saturday, December 20, 2008

Don't Rely on Password Managers to Keep you Safe on Untrusted Computers

In my previous post on password managers, I concluded that they can help you by "remembering" strong, hard-to-guess passwords for your different online accounts (or for other personal information). Actually, though, I started investigating these programs with a specific need in mind: to find a way to use my private accounts on untrusted computers such as public computers (airports, libraries, cybercafes) or your friend's computer if you aren't sure about the security it has.

In my post "Danger Ahead: Using the Cybercafe," I talked about the dangers of public computers, especially the fact that they can capture what you type including your user names, account numbers, and passwords, then pass that information along to cybercriminals. What good is a cybercafe if I can't trust it enough to log into my email account, for example? I looked into the password managers hoping that they would protect my information on public computers, but unfortunately my conclusion is that they do not. There is a ray of hope in another sort of solution, kyps, which I will mention later.

Can Password Managers Keep you Safe on Untrusted Computers?

Short answer: no. You should not use your personal data on an untrusted computer, even by way of a secure password manager. The kyps approach is more promising, but using your own (clean) computer is still the safest.

Long answer: no, though a password manager might reduce the risk somewhat. The problem in a nutshell is that, in principle, an untrusted computer and do anything with the data that goes through it. Theoretically, for example, someone could design a program from scratch that looks and acts just like Windows but also stores and forwards all personal information to the RBN (Russian Business Network) or other cybercrime center. There is simply no way to make an untrusted computer into a secure one.

Passpack is one of the two online password managers I reviewed. When I asked the company about this issue, this is what they said:

Yes, you're absolutely correct. The decrypted pack is used by (thus temporarily stored in) the javascript DOM. So any application that can access that DOM, can access the information stored in the decrypted pack.

As you noted, local memory is an issue with any program, online or off. Unfortunately, for as much as we can do to protect your account, you need to make sure you are on a clean computer. We have written one post to this effect here:

If I understand correctly, since Passpack stores your data in a single pack which it decrypts on your local computer, not only the passwords you use in a session but all your data is exposed this way, which would be dangerous on an untrusted machine.

Security expert Keith Bergen says,

In order for the passwords to be transmitted they have to pass through memory unencrypted so after they're sent to the other side the site can run a hash (md5, or what ever) against the plain text password to compare it to the hash that it stores. There are a few pieces of software that will look for passwords in memory as that is one of the best places to lift them from. ...

There are methods of stripping out the local SSL cert that your computer uses to initiate the SSL communication with the server and to copy and decode all SSL traffic that is sent to and from your computer. There are many Linux programs that do this and I have heard of some Windows implementations as well.

Bergen goes on to say that the practical implications of these issues are less clear. Even though methods exist to steal you credentials in these ways, we don't know how widespread they are. One thing is sure, though, and that is that the cybercriminals are sophisticated, motivated and bright. If it becomes cost effective for them to steal your identity in this way, then they will. So, although some of these managers may in some cases be better than nothing, their security is not something to, so to speak, put your money on. (And note that they may be worse than nothing as in the case of Passpack).

The author of kyps, Andreas Pashalidis, also discusses the risks of using password managers as well as other methods of trying to make a public computer safe. He points out that malware on the computer might not only capture your passwords, but also corrupt the data on your flash drive (if that's what you use) or infect the drive with malware making it unsafe to use even on your own computer.


In the end, I would not want to use any password manager on an untrusted computer, that is one that I am not reasonably sure is free of malware. In a situation where I had no alternative but to use an untrusted computer (suppose I was dying and stranded in a Somali village with no cell phones but with a cybercafe), I would either type in the credentials by hand or use a password manager, then change them as soon as possible and watch for any suspicious activity. However, there is a better approach, which is kyps, discussed in the next post (or just go there and have a look).

Friday, December 19, 2008

A new blogging platform for Africa: Maneno

ManenoYesterday, reading, I was alerted to the existance of a new blogging site for Africa: Maneno (which means "words" in Kiswahili). By "blogging site" I mean something like Blogger or WordPress, a place where anyone can create a blog. What is the point of a new site or platform when other good ones are available? There are several advantages:
  • The site is designed from scratch with the goal of making pages load fast over the slow connections that most of us have in Africa. There really is a noticeable difference.
  • The site is easy to use. (Actually, I'm not sure it's any easier than Blogspot, but the authors are working to keep it simple.)
  • Maneno is multilingual. Other sites do allow you to type your blog entries in your own language, but Maneno has the added feature of an easy interface that lets any member translate any blog post into another language, sort of a communal approach to making the entries themselves available in other languages. Of course, it's the African languages that are the focus.
  • Maneno recognizes that many users in Africa do not have access a computer, so the site is exploring ways to allow people to access it through mobile phones and other relevant technology. (Blogspot also allows posting by mobile phone & email ... will Maneno be better in some way? Probably it at least will be slimmer.)
  • Maneno is focused on Africa. Unlike Blogspot, which is a place for any and every type of blog, Maneno is more topical, describing itself as striving "to provide a communication and development platform for Sub-Saharan Africa."
If you live in Africa and write about life and culture here, or if you're interested in reading the blogs and commentaries of those who do, you should definitely have a look at Maneno.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Password Managers: Brief review of three good products


PassPack list of passwords and automatic logins

In two previous posts (here and here), I looked at the security problems of using a public computer such as one at a cybercafe. Living in Africa, and in a country whose name is almost synonymous with scams, we need to be especially cautious. On the bright side, of course, there are probably fewer people in Nigerian cybercafes with bank accounts worth the effort of cybercriminals, but that is not very reassuring.

The basic problem of public computers is that they could contain any kind of malware, including the kind that can copy your login credentials (user name and password) and send them off to cybercriminals who can then use them, for example, to log in to your bank or email account. Not a happy thought.

Enter the password managers. These programs let you to store your passwords safely somewhere where others can't read them. The passwords are encrypted so that only you can get to them, with some "master key" that you know. This lets you use different, high quality passwords on your sites without being burdened with remembering them all. This in itself is quite useful, without even considering the issue of public computers.

Perhaps the biggest security problem with most people's passwords is that people tend to use easy, guessable passwords and the same password for many accounts. This is natural, since it is hard to remember different, long passwords (or better, passphrases) for each account. A password manager can generate a long, random password for you, or store the password you choose, so that you don't have to remember it.

In the past few couple of weeks, I've looked at three highly-rated password programs: RoboForm, PassPack, and Clipperz. RoboForm stores your passwords on your own computer or flash drive, while the other two store them online.

I have tried mainly the portable RoboForm, called RoboForm2Go, which stores the program and encrypted passwords on a flash drive. This gives me access to the passwords both at home and at work; I could also use the same flash drive on a friend's computer, another computer at work, or a public computer with an available USB port and have access to the passwords without installing any programs or data onto the other computer.

All three of the programs I tested were fairly easy to use, but I think that RoboForm was the easiest. The program sits in the background and automatically offers to memorize the credentials any time you open a new login page or any page with forms to fill in. The next time you open the page, it offers to fill in the fields automatically.

RoboForm Passcard Editor

RoboForm Passcard Editor

How is this different from the automatic password retrieval in Firefox and Internet Explorer? First, with RoboForm2Go you can carry your passwords with you rather than their being stored only on your computer. Second, RoboForm2Go can store many pieces of data besides your user name and password, including first and last name, phone number, address, email addresses, and so on. At your command, it will fill in as much of any form as it can using these stored values. You can store different profiles and identities if, for example, you want to have one set of information for your work and another for your personal life.

Clipperz and PassPack both store only your encrypted passwords online. The advantage is that this gives you access to them from any Internet-connected computer. On the other hand, you need to trust either service enough to enter your passwords on its web page. For that matter, you have to trust RoboForm in the same way. Since all the companies have been around a while and appear reputable, this seems reasonable. Assuming the companies do what they claim, your decrypted passwords never even exist on ClipperZ or PassPack; the only thing that gets sent to the server is an encrypted package.

ClipperZ Login form With either online service, to retrieve your passwords or to directly log in to a protected site you first open your Clipperz or PassPack account with your master password. The master password should be strong so that no one else can access your account. PassPack adds an added layer of protection by using two master keys: one to log in to your account and retrieve the encrypted package, and a second key to use on your own computer to decrypt the package. This means that even someone who breaks your PassPack account password and steals your encrypted package will not be able to decrypt it. It seems to me that if your master password is strong, then the added security is not that important; no one could open your account by a brute force attack, and anyone who manages to steal one password (e.g. with a keylogger or looking over your shoulder) may just as easily steal two.

Although the two work a bit differently, in essence both Clipperz and PassPack send you your encrypted package and then your own computer performs the decryption to extract the actual passwords or other data. Assuming that you have chosen an unguessable master password to unlock all the others, the only significant risk to your data is the risk that exists on your own computer: that's the only place that the unencrypted password ever occur.

RoboForm direct loginAll three of the programs (RoboForm, PassPack and Clipperz) allow you to select a service from your stored list and log in directly, thus functioning as a collection of bookmarks as well as passwords. RoboForm, which by default adds its toolbar to your browser, lets you click on the login button then select the page you want to navigate to, where it logs you in after entering your saved credentials.

All three programs also let you save notes in the encrypted entries, so you can store your account numbers, credit card info, phone numbers, or whatever you want. PassPack, for example, provides a note field for each entry (figure at right). Clipperz lets you choose from a variety of "cards" pre-formatted for you bank account, credit cards, address book and so on, or you can define your own fields as well as using the Note field that's included in each card.

Both of the online password managers allow you to copy your encrypted data to your own computer so that you can access it without an Internet-connected computer. Their methods are different, with PassPack using separate programs that require either Adobe Air or Google Gears to run, while Clipperz downloads a large HTML file which you open in your browser just as you do the online version.

Distinctive Features


  • Runs from your own computer or a flash drive. You need a separate license ($) for each computer and each flash drive, though package discounts are available.
  • Fills forms of all kinds from data you store in "identities".
  • The easiest of the three to use when saving new login information.
  • Paid version lets you store separate profiles and identities.
  • Free version limits you to 10 passwords and 2 identities after 30 days

PassPack Edit Entry WindowPassPack

  • Stores your encrypted data online
  • Two-passwords: one to access your account and another to decrypt your data.
  • Although they cannot retrieve a forgotten decryption password, PassPack staff can roll back your account to use your previous password if you remember that one.
  • Stores and retrieves your data as a single package; updated or new entries are not saved until you click a button to save the package back to the server.
  • You can reach any of your entries quickly, even if there are many, by typing the beginning of the name into the search box.
  • Free version limits you to 100 passwords (but you could open multiple accounts); yearly fee of about $15-20 for unlimited account.
  • Small but growing company, with the responsiveness and accessibility that comes from that.

image Clipperz

  • Stores your encrypted data online
  • Stores and retrieves your data as single "cards" as needed; updated or new entries are saved automatically.
  • Freeware (donations accepted), unlimited passwords
  • Not commercial; future development status uncertain, though product is fully-functional as is.

Which is best?

All three of these are good programs, and I think would be quite usable for most people. I found RoboForm to be a little more convenient than the others, but it's not free. I do not think that there is much difference in features and usability between PassPack and Clipperz, though I've only used them for a few weeks. Since all three programs are either free or have free versions, you will probably want to try them out for yourself to see which you prefer. There is no question that any of them will make your life easier if you want to follow good security practices and use strong, different passwords for your various accounts.

Will they protect you on a public computer?

This is a question I will discuss in the next post. The short answer is that while these products probably decrease your risk on a public computer, they do not eliminate it. There is one more service, however, called kyps (keep your password safe) that works quite differently and might be considered safe for use on a public computer.

Features Summary

Price Multiple
Ease of Use Offline
Access from any Internet- connected computer Quick lockout
RoboForm $30 ($40 for flash drive version) Yes +++ yes no with flash drive version yes
PassPack 100 entries free; $15-$20/yr for unlimited version No (but can use multiple accounts) ++ yes yes yes yes
Clipperz Free No (but can use multiple accounts) ++ yes yes yes yes

Import/Export features

CSV HTML/ Printable KeePass RoboForm Password Plus Printable JSON

PassPack E/I E

Clipperz I E I I I E E/I

RoboForm lists export options as Firebox bookmarks and Internet Explorer favorites. Importable files are Firefox Passwords, Outlook contacts, and various favorites and bookmarks. There does not appear to be an option to import/export arbitrary data with passwords, but I have not researched this beyond looking at what the Import and Export buttons on the menu do.

I welcome any corrections to this review as well as different viewpoints and suggestions of different products to consider for the job.

See also

PassPack and Clipperz, head to head

Addendum and corrections arising from comments

"Also, while not native support, there is also a way to run Passpack off of a USB drive. It uses Passpack's Offline version + Google Gears + Portable Firefox:"

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bluetooth inventor needed for aging Baby-boomers

OK, I'm not that old yet, but along with how ever many million other baby-boomers, I'm moving along the timeline. I already notice it's a little harder to hear sometimes: my son tells me my phone is ringing, and I have trouble hearing people in noisy conditions or in rooms with poor acoustics.

I'm already getting unhappy in big gatherings like our monthly potlucks with loud background music, when I can't hear people talking, or, rather, can't understand what they're saying. I know I'm not the only one, since others voice the same complaint. So, my idea is, why not invent a Bluetooth system that lets you use those in-the-ear phone thingies to talk to the people around you in noisy gatherings? Since the technology is already in place (phones, ear adapters, tiny Bluetooth transceivers and so on), it seems that it could actually work.

Bluetooth would work well for talking with the people nearby because it has a limited range and you wouldn't be hearing everyone in the room. Some kind of selection mechanism would be needed, perhaps, or maybe it would be more natural just to be able to hear everyone in a defined range as in normal conversation.

Meanwhile, my sister suggests I should take up sign language. Sounds like a good idea to me!