Wednesday, June 24, 2009

 

Disagreeing with Jakob Nielsen on security—Password masking makes logins more secure

When it comes to usability, disagreeing with Jakob Nielsen is usually not an option. After all, he has been called king, czar, guru or Web usability for a reason, and his Alertbox offers invaluable advise most of the time.

Disagreeing with Jakob Nielsen on security is easier, especially when he advocates to remove password masking as a means to improve usability and claims that this doesn't lower security.

While not offering a high degree of protection, the password masking does a pretty good job for most situations. Certainly, a determined and skilled criminal would be able to observe which keys are pressed, or use other attack vectors to intercept my Web interactions. I am often surrounded by trustworthy people who still shouldn't know my passwords, don't care about my passwords and even politely turn their eyes away while I am logging in. Whether showing someone a Website or doing a demo to a larger audience, accessing protected areas of a site in a semi-public environment like a desk-sharing area at work or logging in from a mobile device, those little stars or dots protect my passwords well from becoming exposed.

Security and usability should not be conflicting objectives; in fact usability is an important aspect for any security system, or users will work around usability issues and use it in unintended ways, like copying and pasting passwords from a text file as Nielsen mentions. An extra checkbox to enable password masking just adds complexity to the user interface and may confuse users more than not being able to see their password.

Typing passwords on mobile devices (or foreign keyboards, for that matter) can be challenging. Some smartphones like the iPhone or the Nokia N95 show the letter as typed but then quickly replacing it with an asterisk, which is a reasonable compromise.

Instead of cluttering Web forms with additional checkboxes, web developers should demand that browsers and mobile devices provide an option to remove password masking when desired by the user. This would maintain the current level of security by not exposing the passwords to people looking over users' shoulders and address the usability issue for those who have difficulty typing their password and would benefit from visual feedback.

Until then, use this JavaScript bookmarklet to unmask password fields as needed:

for(var i=0;(var a=document.getElementsByTagName("input")[i]);i++){
if(a.getAttribute("type").indexOf("password")!=-1){
a.type="text"
}
}
window.focus();

(all on one line, or simply drag the Unmask passwords bookmarklet link to your bookmarks).

PS. More ways to reveal passwords in a controlled manner can be found in Martin Brinkmann's blog post Reveal your saved Passwords in Firefox.

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