The Pros and Cons of Password Masking
Usability guru Jakob Nielsen opened up a can of worms when he made the case for unmasking passwords in his blog. I chimed in that I agreed. Almost 165 comments on my blog (and several articles, essays, and many other blog posts) later, the consensus is that we were wrong.
I was certainly too glib. Like any security countermeasure, password masking has value. But like any countermeasure, password masking is not a panacea. And the costs of password masking need to be balanced with the benefits.
The cost is accuracy. When users don’t get visual feedback from what they’re typing, they’re more prone to make mistakes. This is especially true with character strings that have non-standard characters and capitalization. This has several ancillary costs:
- Users get pissed off.
- Users are more likely to choose easy-to-type passwords, reducing both mistakes and security. Removing password masking will make people more comfortable with complicated passwords: they’ll become easier to memorize and easier to use.
The benefits of password masking are more obvious:
- Security from shoulder surfing. If people can’t look over your shoulder and see what you’re typing, they’re much less likely to be able to steal your password. Yes, they can look at your fingers instead, but that’s much harder than looking at the screen. Surveillance cameras are also an issue: it’s easier to watch someone’s fingers on recorded video, but reading a cleartext password off a screen is trivial.
In some situations, there is a trust dynamic involved. Do you type your password while your boss is standing over your shoulder watching? How about your spouse or partner? Your parent or child? Your teacher or students? At ATMs, there’s a social convention of standing away from someone using the machine, but that convention doesn’t apply to computers. You might not trust the person standing next to you enough to let him see your password, but don’t feel comfortable telling him to look away. Password masking solves that social awkwardness.
- Security from screen scraping malware. This is less of an issue; keyboard loggers are more common and unaffected by password masking. And if you have that kind of malware on your computer, you’ve got all sorts of problems.
- A security “signal.” Password masking alerts users, and I’m thinking users who aren’t particularly security savvy, that passwords are a secret.
I believe that shoulder surfing isn’t nearly the problem it’s made out to be. One, lots of people use their computers in private, with no one looking over their shoulders. Two, personal handheld devices are used very close to the body, making shoulder surfing all that much harder. Three, it’s hard to quickly and accurately memorize a random non-alphanumeric string that flashes on the screen for a second or so.
This is not to say that shoulder surfing isn’t a threat. It is. And, as many readers pointed out, password masking is one of the reasons it isn’t more of a threat. And the threat is greater for those who are not fluent computer users: slow typists and people who are likely to choose bad passwords. But I believe that the risks are overstated.
Password masking is definitely important on public terminals with short PINs. (I’m thinking of ATMs.) The value of the PIN is large, shoulder surfing is more common, and a four-digit PIN is easy to remember in any case.
And lastly, this problem largely disappears on the Internet on your personal computer. Most browsers include the ability to save and then automatically populate password fields, making the usability problem go away at the expense of another security problem (the security of the password becomes the security of the computer). There’s a Firefox plugin that gets rid of password masking. And programs like my own Password Safe allow passwords to be cut and pasted into applications, also eliminating the usability problem.
One approach is to make it a configurable option. High-risk banking applications could turn password masking on by default; other applications could turn it off by default. Browsers in public locations could turn it on by default. I like this, but it complicates the user interface.
A reader mentioned BlackBerry’s solution, which is to display each character briefly before masking it; that seems like an excellent compromise.
I, for one, would like the option. I cannot type complicated WEP keys into Windows — twice! what’s the deal with that? — without making mistakes. I cannot type my rarely used and very complicated PGP keys without making a mistake unless I turn off password masking. That’s what I was reacting to when I said “I agree.”
So was I wrong? Maybe. Okay, probably. Password masking definitely improves security; many readers pointed out that they regularly use their computer in crowded environments, and rely on password masking to protect their passwords. On the other hand, password masking reduces accuracy and makes it less likely that users will choose secure and hard-to-remember passwords, I will concede that the password masking trade-off is more beneficial than I thought in my snap reaction, but also that the answer is not nearly as obvious as we have historically assumed.