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Heartbleed: A Password Manager Reality Check

Is a password manager an effective defense against vulnerabilities like Heartbleed, or just another way to lose data to hackers?

10 Ways To Fight Digital Theft & Fraud
10 Ways To Fight Digital Theft & Fraud
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Should the OpenSSL Heartbleed bug serve as a wake-up call for people not using a password management application or service to manage their passwords? Consider who are at the greatest risk of having their passwords stolen by Heartbleed-targeting hackers: People who reuse their passwords across multiple sites. That's because an attacker only needs to hack into one site -- say, a social network -- to obtain a password that works across multiple sites, such as your banking website.

Faced with that reality, some users have opted to tap a purpose-built security tool for generating and storing strong passwords. "If you don't use a password manager, you will end up using the same password on multiple sites. That password, becomes a 'basket' in which your security for all of the sites you use it for are stored," said David Chartier at AgileBits, which develops 1Password, via email. "So if you use the same password on Amazon, eBay, Facebook, MyCatPictures, and others, then all of those sites are in the same basket. And that basket is extremely fragile. A breach of one of those sites is a breach for all."

[Looking to supplement your security defenses? Read How A Little Obscurity Can Bolster Security.]

Here are some facts to consider if you're wondering whether one of the many different password managers that are available is right for you or your organization:

1. Your own "password manager" might be lacking
When weighing password managers, the first question should be: What are you doing now? How many people have a Word document -- perhaps named "passwords.docx" -- tracking all of their passwords? If so, watch out for malware infections. Harvesting files with interesting-sounding words is child's play for hackers.

2. Security experts swear by password managers
Consider leading information security experts' opinions about password managers. For example, to manage the challenge of safely storing strong, long, and unique passwords, while keeping them easily at hand, Bruce Schneier long ago built and released his own password management application, which is now an ongoing, open-source Windows -- and soon, Linux -- project. Like other password managers, it requires users to enter a master password, which then unlocks the password safe.

(Image: Dev.Arka via Flickr)
(Image: Dev.Arka via Flickr)

One of the upsides of using password managers is practicality: Many different passwords can be securely stored in one place. Some password management tools, furthermore, will even store website URLs and automatically populate website username and password fields, thus creating both a more secure and more automated log-in process.

"I can't imagine life without a password manager," said Sean Sullivan, security advisor at F-Secure Labs, via email. "I have far too many sites to manage otherwise."

3. A password manager: single point of password failure?
On the other hand, some would-be users worry about gathering all of their passwords in a single place, even if that repository itself gets encrypted and protected by a master password. "I've started using two-step authentication, but was avoiding the password generator/keeper programs because those seem like they could be a huge problem if they get hacked," one DarkReading reader recently emailed. "Do you have an expert opinion?"

"This is a great question," AgileBits' Chartier says. "Regarding two-step authentication, let me ask in return how many different sites and services do you plan to use it for? Two, three, one hundred? My guess is that you will

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Mathew Schwartz is a freelance writer, editor, and photographer, as well the InformationWeek information security reporter. View Full Bio

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ReneT944
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ReneT944,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/25/2014 | 8:42:55 AM
Agree with the Author
Enjoyed reading your post Mathew :). You put up some really good questions and presented very good answers. I completely agree with what you said. Password managers are important these days with so many applications and website logins. Yeah security is one aspect of password managers. I mean, taking the present situation into consideration, during such times password manager comes in very handy as it gives the features to replace old passwords with new passwords. It can do lot more than that. But another aspect of password managers is – the ease it provides in day to day life. I mean with so many things to remember, password managers just make it very easy to handle all the data. I use Password Depot. It is an offline password manager, makes me feel very secure. I kind of scare away from online password managers. I believe that a strong master password is all one needs to remain safe in this web of internet. Check this out about how to choose a strong master password ---  http://www.password-depot.com/know-how/brute-force-attacks.htm.  Password depot is one of the best password managers I have used so far that offers so many features. I don't plan to change it. Best software! I would highly recommend people to use password managers, it is not just about security but also about easy management of your passwords ( not just passwords, but every data item that you think needs to saved securely :) ) 
Markus5
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Markus5,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/22/2014 | 6:12:34 AM
Re: RoboForm Password Manager
I use Sticky Password. These guys are great, secure and cheap. However nice article debunking many questions. Thanks
Marilyn Cohodas
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Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
4/21/2014 | 4:05:44 PM
Group-based passwords for SMBs
I find it very interesting (though not particularly surprising) that Heartbleed has raised awareness about password managers among SMBs. Anyone have any experience with using a password manager in a group setting? 

 

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itsec9987
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itsec9987,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/21/2014 | 1:14:47 PM
Re: RoboForm Password Manager
Ryan - I know that with RoboForm, all of your data is safely encrypted and secure with your master password, which RoboForm does not store in any way.  Therefor, hackers would have to somehow figure out your master password to get access to the rest.  Hope this helps!
Mathew
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Mathew,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/21/2014 | 4:58:24 AM
Re: RoboForm Password Manager
@Ryan, many types of password management software will allow you to sync a password database from one device to another (as well as store the old password). That way, if you generate a new strong password (from within the application) on a preset basis, it will store that info and make it available. 

So rather than being a single point of failure or thinking of this like single sign-on, think of it more as a secure vault for your passwords. Meaning that if you're storing passwords on your computer in almost any other way, this is a more secure -- and easy to use -- way to do it. 
PaulS681
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PaulS681,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/20/2014 | 6:58:13 PM
Re: language
You may have something with passcode. However password has been used for so long it will be hard to get people to think of it as a code and not a word. Also, if you can still enter a word then I think users will still do that. Unless a passcode needs to alternate numbers and letters. Then you will need a password manager.
stalepie
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stalepie,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/19/2014 | 12:33:52 PM
language
Use the word "passcode" instead of "password" and less people will use simple passcodes based on words. Something like "H6f4ggmo3fGaM" is not a word, so it doesn't make sense to call it a "password." 
RyanSepe
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RyanSepe,
User Rank: Ninja
4/18/2014 | 7:37:52 PM
Re: RoboForm Password Manager
Ok thank you for the insight. It seems very logical to have something like a password manager in place. However, let me play devil's advocate for the moment. For the password manager to work it needs to store your passwords. Think of it like a vault, you leave your passwords in there for an extended period of time. How is this more safe then remembering a complex password that you create on your own? If this password manager is exploited isn't this just as risky as using the same password, because all your eggs are literally in that vault/basket? Main point I am asking is, why is this a better safeguard then remembering your own complex password? Thoughts?
jaingverda
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jaingverda,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/18/2014 | 5:14:05 PM
Re: RoboForm Password Manager
@Ryan to answer yoru questions for lastpass at least; I can't speak to other password managers. It does act as a single sign on but I still have to manually log into my password manager and click the button to sign into a site ala facebook or here. With lastpass you sign into your portal and can either install an extension, have it on a usb key or mobile. It is cloud based using from what I can tell the best crypto practices and it remembers them for you. They can not I repeat can not see your passwords since all the of your data for passwords was encrypted before it hit the cloud and then downloaded and authenticated locally. Also lastpass is system agnostic it works on linux, mac, windows and on android, blackberry and ios if you pay the 12$/yr premium cost which to me is worth it. Also to change passwords all you need to do is goto the changing password page and generate the new password from lastpass that easy.
jaingverda
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jaingverda,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/18/2014 | 5:08:30 PM
Re: RoboForm Password Manager
I use lastpass and will be paying for the premium part here soon to use it on my mobile device. I swear by it, the passwords are stored securely and also for security reasons last pass is just an encrypted storage facility for me. I find it increadibly easy to use on most sites. Once in a while I run into an issue but that's normally because something has been coded funny on the page I'm trying to hook lastpass into. It also has helped me manage my passwords better by even letting me know "hey this is a duplicate password" for a couple sites.
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