Occupied Neurons, early July 2016: security edition

Who are you, really: Safer and more convenient sign-in on the web – Google I/O 2016

Google shared some helpful tips for web developers to make it as easy as possible for users to securely sign in to your web site, from the Google Chrome team:

  • simple-if-annoying-that-we-still-have-to-use-these attributes to add to your forms to assist Password Manager apps
  • A Credential Management API that (though cryptically explained) smoothes out some of the steps in retrieving creds from the Chrome Credential Manager
  • This API also addresses some of the security threats (plaintext networks, Javascript-in-the-middle, XSS)
  • Then they discuss the FIDO UAF and U2F specs – where the U2F “security key” signs the server’s secondary challenge with a private key whose public key is already enrolled with the online identity the server is authenticating

The U2F “security key” USB dongle idea is cute and useful – it requires the user’s interaction with the button (can’t be automatically scraped by silent malware), uses RSA signatures to provide strong proof of possession and can’t be duplicated. But as with any physical “token”, it can be lost and it requires that physical interface (e.g. USB) that not all devices have. Smart cards and RSA tokens (the one-time key generators) never entirely caught on either, despite their laudable security laurels.

The Credential Manager API discussion reminds me of the Internet Explorer echo chamber from 10-15 years ago – Microsoft browser developers adding in all these proprietary hooks because they couldn’t imagine anyone *not* fully embracing IE as the one and only browser they would use everywhere. Disturbing to see Google slip into that same lazy arrogance – assuming that web developers will assume that their users will (a) always use Chrome and (b) be using Chrome’s Credential Manager (not an external password manager app) to store passwords.

Disappointing navel-gazing for the most part.

Google’s password-free logins may arrive on Android apps by year-end

Project Abacus creates a “Trust Score API” – an interesting concept which intends supplant the need for passwords or other explicit authentication demands, by taking ambient readings from sensors and user interaction patterns with their device to determine how likely it is that the current holder/user is equivalent to the identity being asserted/authenticated.

This is certainly more interesting technology, if only because it allows for the possibility that any organization/entity that wishes to set their own tolerance/threshold per-usage can do so, using different “Trust Scores” depending on how valuable the data/API/interaction is that the user is attempting. A simple lookup of a bank balance could require a lower score than making a transfer of money out of an account, for example.

The only trick to this is the user must allow Google to continuously measure All The Thingz from the device – listen on the microphone, watch all typing, observe all location data, see what’s in front of the camera lens. Etc. Etc. Etc.

If launched today, I suspect this would trip over most users’ “freak-out” instinct and would fail, so kudos to Google for taking it slow. They’re going to need to shore up the reputation of Android phones and their inscrutably cryptic if comprehensive permissions model and how well that’s sandboxed if they’ll ever get widespread trust for Google to watch everything you’re doing.


Looks like Microsoft is incorporating “widely-used hacked passwords” into the set of password rules that Active Directory can enforce against users trying to establish a weak password. Hopefully this’ll be less frustrating than the “complex passwords” rules that AD and some of Microsoft’s more zealous customers like to enforce, making it nigh-impossible to know what the rules are let alone give a sentient human a chance of getting a password you might want to type 20-50 times/day. [Not that I have any PTSD from that…]

Unfortunately, they do a piss-poor job of explaining how “Smart Password Lockout” works. I’m going to take a guess how this works, and hopefully someday it’ll be spelled out. It appears they’ve got some extra smarts in the AD password authentication routine that runs at the server-side – it can effectively determine whether the bad password authentication attempt came from an already-known device or not. This means that AD is keeping a rolling cache of the “familiar environments” – likely one that ages out the older records (e.g. flushing anything older than 30 days). What’s unclear is whether they’re recording remote IP addresses, remote computer names/identities, remote IP address subnets, or some new “cookie”-like data that wasn’t traditionally sent with the authentication stream.

If this is based on Kerberos/SAML exchanges, then it’s quite possible to capture the remote identity of the computer from which the exchange occurred (at least for machines that are part of the Active Directory domain). However, if this is meant as a more general-purpose mitigation for accounts used in more Internet (not Active Directory domain) setting, then unless Active Directory has added cookie-tracking capabilities it didn’t have a decade ago, I’d imagine they’re operating strictly on the remote IP address enveloped around any authentication request (Kerberos, NTLM, Basic, Digest).

Still seems a worthwhile effort – if it allows AD to lockout attackers trying to brute-force my account from locations where no successful authentication has taken place – AND continues to allow me to proceed past the “account lockout” at the same time – this is a big win for end users, especially where AD is used in Internet-facing settings like Azure.


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