You are here

Forcing Functions and Mouse Pads

If strong security depends on strong passwords, then one strategy to achieve good security is to implement mechanisms that enforce the use of strong passwords. The mechanisms either generate appropriate passwords automatically or they critique the passwords selected by users. For example, NIST published a standard for automatic password generators. Mechanisms to enforce restrictions on the size and composition of passwords are very common in state-of-the-art operating systems, including Microsoft Windows NT and 2000 as well as major versions of Unix. While these approaches can have some value, they also have limitations. In terms of the user interface, the mechanisms generally work as forcing functions that try to control user password choices (see Note 12).

Unfortunately, forcing functions do not necessarily solve the problem that motivated their implementation. The book Why Things Bite Back, by Edward Tenner, examines unintended consequences of various technological mechanisms. In particular, the book identifies several different patterns by which technology takes revenge on humanity when applied to a difficult problem. A common pattern, for example, is for the technological fix to simply "rearrange" things so that the original problem remains but in a different guise (see Note 13).

Forcing functions are prone to rearrangements. In the case of strong password enforcement, we set up intractable forces for collision. We can implement software that requires complicated, hard-to-remember passwords, but we can't change individuals' memorization skills. When people require computers to get work done, they will rearrange the problem themselves to reconcile the limits of their memory with the mandates of the password selection mechanism.

Coincidentally, mouse pads are shaped like miniature doormats. Just as some people hide house keys under doormats, some hide passwords under mouse pads (Figure 2). The author occasionally performs "mouse pad surveys" at companies using computer systems. The surveys look under mouse pads and superficially among other papers near workstations for written passwords. A significant number are found, at both high-tech and low-tech companies.

Figure 2: Passwords hidden under a mouse pad

This handwritten list of passwords was found under a mouse pad in a professional office. Each time the system demanded a new password, the user chose a new one, wrote it on the slip of paper, and stuck it back underneath the mouse pad. As many as one out of three people do something like this.

 Password list hidden under a mouse pad

  Authentication © 2002, used by permission

People rarely include little notes with their passwords to explain why they chose to hide the password instead of memorize it. In some cases, several people might be sharing the password and the written copy is the simplest way to keep all users informed. Although many sites discourage such sharing, it often takes place, notably between senior managers and their administrative assistants. More often, people write down passwords because they have so much trouble remembering them. When asked about written passwords, poor memory is the typical excuse.

An interesting relationship noted in these surveys is that people hide written passwords near their workstations more often when the system requires users to periodically change them. In the author's experience, the likelihood of finding written passwords near a workstation subjected to periodic password changes ranged from 16% to 39%, varying from site to site. At the same sites, however, the likelihood ranged from 4% to 9% for workstations connected to systems that did not enforce periodic password changes. In some cases, over a third of a system's users rearranged the password problem to adapt to their inability to constantly memorize new passwords.

These surveys also suggest an obvious attack: the attacker can simply search around workstations in an office area for written passwords. This strategy appeared in the motion picture WarGames, in a scene in which a character found the password for the high school computer by looking in a desk. Interestingly, the password was clearly the latest entry in a list of words where the earlier entries were all crossed off. Most likely, the school was required to change its password periodically (for "security" reasons) and the users kept this list so they wouldn't forget the latest password.

Using the statistics from mouse pad searches, we can estimate the average attack space for the corresponding attack. Table 4 compares the results with other average attack spaces. In the best case, the likelihood is 4%, or one in 25, so the attacker must, on average, search 12 or 13 desks to find a password. That yields an average attack space of 24. The worst case is 39%, which is less than one in three. Thus, the attacker must, on average, search one or two desks to find a written password.

Table 4: Mouse Pad Searches and Average Attack Spaces
 Example  Style of Attack  Average Attack Space
 Trial-and-error attack on 56-bit DES encryption keys Off-line   254
 Dictionary attack on eight-character Unix passwords Off-line   223
 Trial-and-error attack on four-digit PINs  Interactive 213
 Best-case result of a mouse pad search  Interactive  24
 Worst-case result of a mouse pad search  Interactive  21

The mouse pad problem shows that we can't always increase the average attack space simply by making passwords more complicated. If we overwhelm people's memories, we make certain attack risks worse, not better. The reason we want to discourage single-word passwords is that they're vulnerable to off-line dictionary attacks. Table 4 shows that such attacks involve a 223 attack space. We don't increase the average attack space if forgettable passwords move to the bottom of people's mouse pads.

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer