Internet security is a sitting duck that could easily succumb to a number of bleak possible futures.
One prediction we can make with certainty is that as the overall safety of the net continues to erode, individual web sites will flail around looking for ways to protect themselves. They will come across novel ideas that seem to make sense from the vantage point of a single web site. Yet if they implement these ideas, most of them will backfire. Internet users have to navigate many different sites on an irregular basis. For them, the experience of disparate mechanisms and paradigms on every different site will be even more confusing and troubling than the current degenerating landscape. The Seventh Law of Identity is animated by these very concerns.
I know from earlier exchanges that Michael Ramirez understands these issues – as well as their architectural implications. So I can just imagine how he felt when he first encountered a new system that seems to represent an unfortunately great example of this dynamic. His first post on the matter started this way:
“Logging into the DFAS myPay site is frustrating. This is the gateway where DoD employees can view and change their financial data and records.
“A randomization function is used to change the position of the buttons, presumably to prevent a simple click-tracking virus from simply replaying the click sequence. Numbers always appear on the upper row and the letters will appear in a random position on the same row where they exist on the keyboard (e.g. QWERTY letters will always appear on the top row, just in a random order).
“A visOrder variable is included with a simple substitution cipher to identify button locations: 0 is represented by position 0, 1 by position 1, etc. Thus:
“Thus any virus/program can easily mount an online guessing attack (since it defines the substitution pattern), and can quickly decipher the PIN if it has access to the POST parameters.
A few days later, Michael was back with an even stranger report. In fact this particular “user journey” verges on the bizarre. Michael writes:
“MyPay recently overhauled their interface and made it more “secure.” I have my doubts, but they certainly have changed how they interact with the user.
“I was a bit speechless. Pleading with users is new, but maybe it'll work for them. Apparently it'll be the only thing working for them:
Although most users have established their new login credentials with no trouble, some users are calling the Central Customer Support Unit for assistance. As a result, customer support is experiencing high call volume, and many customers are waiting on hold longer than usual.
We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. We are doing everything possible to remedy this situation.
Michael concludes by making it clear he thinks “more than a few” users may have had trouble. He says, “Maybe, just maybe, it's because of your continued use of the ridiculous virtual keyboard. Yes, you've increased the password complexity requirements (which actually increased security), but slaughtered what little usability you had. I promise you that getting rid of it will ‘remedy this situation.'”
One might just shrug one's shoulders and wait for this to pass. But I can't do that. I feel compelled to redouble our efforts to produce and adopt a common standards-based approach to authentication that will work securely and in a consistent way across different web sites and environments. In other words, reusable identities, the claims-based architecture, and truly usable and intuitive visual interfaces.