My non-approach to password management tools

October 5, 2018

In response to my entry on why I don't set master passwords in programs, Bill asked a good question:

Does your skepticism extend to password-management tools in general? If so, then what do you store passwords in? [...]

There are two answers to this. The first one is that I simply assume that if an attacker compromises my machine, they get essentially everything no matter what I do, so I either record a password in an unencrypted form on the machine or I don't have it on my machine at all. Access to my machine more or less gives you access to my email, and with access to my email you can probably reset all of the passwords that I keep on the machine anyway. In general and in theory, none of these are important passwords.

(In practice, these days I would care a fair bit if I lost control of some of the accounts they're for. But I started doing this back in the days when the only web accounts I had were on places like Slashdot and on vendor sites that insisted that you register for things.)

But that's the anodyne, potentially defensible answer. It's true, as far as it goes, in that I make sure that important, dangerous passwords are never recorded on my machine. But it is not really why I don't have a password manager. The deeper truth is that I've never cared enough to go through the effort of investigating the various alternatives, figuring out which one is trustworthy, competent, has good cryptography, and will be there in ten years, and then putting all of my theoretically unimportant passwords into it. This is the same lack of caring and laziness that had me use unencrypted SSH keypairs for many years until I finally motivated myself to switch over.

(Probably I should motivate myself to start using some encrypted password storage scheme, but my current storage scheme for such nominally unimportant passwords has more than just the password; I also note down all sorts of additional details about the website or registration or whatever, including things like login name, the tagged email address I used for it, and so on. Really I'd want to find a decent app that did a great job of handling encrypted notes.)

I have a long history of such laziness until I'm prodded into finding better solutions, sometimes by writing about my current approaches here and facing up to their flaws. I'll have to see if that happens for this case.

PS: The reason to encrypt passwords at rest even on my machine is the same reason to encrypt my SSH keypairs at rest; it's often a lot easier in practice to read files you're not supposed to have access to than to fully compromise the machine. On the other hand, SSH keypairs are usually in a known or directly findable location, and my collection of password information is not; an attacker would need the ability to hunt around my filesystem.

Written on 05 October 2018.
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Last modified: Fri Oct 5 01:37:46 2018
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