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December 2009

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I rarely use this site to simply post links, but Bruce Schneier has an excellent article on the security theater of the TSA and other governmental organizations. As he says:

When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn't truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn't make any sense...

Our current response to terrorism is a form of "magical thinking." It relies on the idea that we can somehow make ourselves safer by protecting against what the terrorists happened to do last time.

Schneier is one of the most respected experts in security - electronic or otherwise - and when somebody of his stature speaks out on these issues it gives me some hope that change might be possible.

Not much, mind you.

I've been using Chrome recently, since they've finally released betas for both OS X and Linux.

By and large, it's a great product. It's fast, lightweight, and it has a very minimal UI. I'm nearly ready to throw firefox away and switch for good (in fact, I have switched on my netbook, where Chrome's advantages are paramount).

I'm not switching on my primary system, though. Why? Well, it turns out that Chrome has no facility to store passwords and encrypt them with a master password.

I mention this limitation not because it's overly interesting from a technical perspective, but because I find the Chrome team's process of repeatedly punting on bugs fairly amusing. Firefox's master password feature is certainly no panacea - indeed, if you care about security greatly, you would never store passwords at all - but it's better than nothing. It prevents casual access to stored passwords, and allows a user to be fairly certain that if they forget to lock their workstation a passerby will not then be able to immediately harvest all their credentials.

But reading through the comments in the Chrome bug tracker, it's clear that the engineers completely discount this use case. They claim (rightfully, of course) that an attacker with physical access to a system would then have the ability to gain much of the information stored therein (via a keylogger or other mechanisms) regardless of whether the browser utilized a master password.

They're right, but they're missing the point. Sure, physical access makes it possible for an attacker to gain information by compromising system integrity, but in the real world this isn't the person you're most likely to need protection from. The encrypted password file, combined with a master password, provides nearly complete protection from the most likely enemy: an attacker of opportunity who would casually grab your credentials if it was easy enough, but is not willing to risk detection by manipulating your system.

Chrome on Linux currently stores passwords plaintext on the filesystem, without any encryption. How this is deemed superior to Firefox's master password feature - which encrypts stored passwords using 3DES in CBC mode - is beyond me.

The old saying goes that an illusion of security can be worse than no security at all, which is the argument that the Chrome engineers use to downplay the utility of this feature. But Firefox's mechanism provides more than a simple illusion - it really does make it exceptionally difficult for an attacker to get your passwords, even if they have acquired the file. Contrast with Chrome's technique of providing no security at all, and I'm still going to cast my lot with Firefox on systems where I store passwords.