Password Managers Relieve Password Headaches

Passwords Are a Hassle

I’ll be the first to admit I can’t remember all my passwords. Most of us can’t, so we pick a few passwords that are easy to remember and then use them with multiple sites. This results in two immediate problems. A password manager can help with both of these problems. First, passwords that are easy to remember are typically also easy to guess. Second, a compromised password is a risk to every site where it has been reused. A password manager both of these problems since it can generate a secure and unique password for each site, but only requires that you remember a single password to unlock the database. While it is possible, to create passwords that are secure and memorable, it is more difficult to do this with the significant number of passwords we frequently use in modern life. I detailed some additional problems with passwords in previous articles Your NYE Resolution—Pick Better Passwords and Data Evaporation and the Security of Recycled Accounts. I find that password manager with solid browser integration is well worth the initial setup time and expense.

While there are many good options, my password manager of choice is 1Password from AgileBits that is available for Mac OS X, Windows, and the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch. I consider it an indispensable tool and I use it daily both on my desktop and my phone. 1Password integrates with many popular browsers, which makes logging into web sites faster and more convenient. The application allows me to easily switch between multiple browsers and multiple devices without worrying, which browser I might have saved a particular password.

When I first looked at 1Password in 2006, I thought there was no way I would be willing pay for it since all modern browsers ship with password management functionality. Shortly after I started testing the application I found it so convenient, I changed my mind and purchased it. Nearly six years and many major upgrades later, I have no regrets. I have nearly eight hundred logins saved in 1Password. Even though I regularly clean out duplicates and entries for dead services, this is still a ridiculous number of accounts. Look at it this way, I test services so you don’t have to.

We All Forget Passwords

A 2007 paper A Large-Scale Study Of Web Password Habits of more than half a million users found that about 1.5% of all Yahoo! users forgot their password each month. Yahoo Mail alone has more than 200 million accounts, so this is a significant number. The authors found that the “average user has 6.5 passwords, each of which is shared across 3.9 different sites. Each user has about 25 accounts that require passwords, and types an average of 8 passwords per day.”

Complicated Passwords and Compact Keyboards Don’t Mix

The current crop of smartphones ship with highly capable browsers, but entering lengthy passwords on a phone keyboard is even more error prone and frustrating on the desktop. Here again, a password manager can reduce the complexities of entering many different password strings on a mobile device. The application allows you to make a mobile keyboard optimized and possibly simplified password that protects your longer more complex passwords and notes. This is of course a security tradeoff.

Mobile Safari on the iPhone and iPad does not permit plugins, so the 1Password application on iOS devices embeds a browser that is able to offer the automatic login feature. I prefer the default browser, but unfortunately there is no option for direct integration. The 1Password bookmarklet makes it relatively quick to look up an entry in the database and then copy and paste long passwords from its database far more easily than trying to type them in by hand

Other Advantages of 1Password

I regularly use multiple browsers. I also frequently delete my cookies and browser settings when I test services. This would typically cause a nightmare of needing to re-authenticate to each web site where I deleted the cookies. Since all of my login information is stored in 1Password rather than the browser, I don’t have to care about which browser I am currently using or even if my cookies still exist.

Since 1Password is also a general form filler it can cope with login forms that have partial entries or multi-stage. For example, many services require that users re-enter their password to access account management features even if they are already logged in. This is to prevent another person from simply walking up to your unattended computer from viewing or making changes to billing information, email forwarding, and passwords. In most cases, 1Password is able treat the re-authentication sign in forms exactly like a standard sign in form.

Some sign in forms are multi-stage where login process is split across several forms. For example, many online banks are multi-stage sign in forms. In the first stage, the user enters a username and their browser must acquire a cookie from the bank. If the user does not already have a cookie from a previous session, the user must enter a second authentication factor such responding to a text message with a unique code or entering the code from a hardware token. Next, on a second form on a separate page the user enters a password.

In cases where 1Password is confused by multiple stage forms, the work around for this type of site is to simply make two separately named entries in 1Password. For example, the first entry would contain the username and the second entry would contain the password. The user must go through the full sign in process the first time to received a cookie from the bank by completing the two-factor authentication process and has create a 1Password entry for each step in the form. Each subsequent login to the bank will be treated like all other sites and can be automated with the auto-login and auto-submit features.

Here is a small laundry list of other features I regularly use and appreciate about 1Password.

  • General form saving support. 1Password can save and replay many kind of web forms, which is a useful feature if you find yourself filling out the same information over and over again.
  • Support for “identities” where the application stores commonly used bits of information such as name, email, phone number and can populate this information into many types of forms with little effort.
  • Basic anti-phishing protection since by default 1Password will only post usernames, passwords, and other forms back to the same domain name as the original.
  • The application can generate random passwords with several different templates that will satisfy most password requirements.
  • In addition to usernames, passwords, forms and identities, 1Password also supports encrypted notes.
  • The Mac OS X desktop application will sync over the local wired network and WiFi for iOS devices
  • 1Password will sync with Dropbox for all desktop and mobile applications including Windows and Android

Limitations of 1 Password

There are several important limitations with 1Password. The application cannot handle login forms built with Adobe Flash. Previous generations of 1Password supported login forms with HTTP basic authentication, however the new plugin architecture for Safari and Chrome do not offer support for HTTP basic. AgileBits says it is working on a solution for Firefox.

The features of the Windows version of 1Password are not quite yet on part with the Mac, for example it only supports 32-bit Internet Explorer, 32-bit Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. This said that covers most browsers that user’s need.

Pricing

1Password for Mac and 1Password for Windows is $49.99, 1Password Pro is $14.95 is available for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.

1Password Bookmarklet Gone Missing

If you are a frequent 1Password user, particularly on iOS devices, you may have noticed that AgileBits discontinued support for the 1Password bookmarklet, which was the best option for integrating with Mobile Safari rather than the integrated browser in the application. Fortunately, Kevin Yank and * have produced a working 1Password bookmarklet. I have reproduced it here:

javascript:window.location='onepassword://'+window.location.href.substring(window.location.href.indexOf('//')+2)

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One thought on “Password Managers Relieve Password Headaches

  1. Excellent review, thanks. I’ve looked at 1Password but for the moment am using lower-priced Data Guardian.

    All of this makes me wonder again why key-based authentication has not taken off in the browser world the way it has for ssh. It’s odd, for example, that you use a key to access git repositories on github, but still need a password to log in to the website.

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