Why are passwords a users problem?

Why are passwords a users problem?

In the light of GoTo admitting their breach was worse than initially reported I have found myself both discussing passwords with people more than ever before and directing a metric ton of business towards 1Password. However, it has raised an obvious question for me: why are users involved with passwords at all? Why is this still something I have to talk to my grandparents about?

Let us discuss your password storage system again

All the major browsers have password managers that sync across devices. These stores are (as far as I can tell) reasonably secure. Access to the device would reveal them, but excluding physical access to an unlocked computer they seem fine. There is a common API, the Credentials Management API docs here that allow for a website to query the password store inside of the browser for the login, even allowing for Federated logins or different or same logins for subdomains as part of the spec. This makes for a truly effortless login experience for users without needing them to do anything. These browsers already have syncing with a master password concept across mobile/desktop and can generate passwords upon request.

If the browser can: generate a password, store a password, sync a password and return the password when asked, why am I telling people to download another tool that does the exact same thing? A tool made by people who didn't make the browser and most of whom haven't been independently vetted by anybody.

Surely it can't be that easy

So when doing some searching about the Credentials Management API, one of the sites you run across a lot is this demo site: https://credential-management-sample.appspot.com/. This allows you to register an account, logout and then see the login auto-filled by the browser when you get back to it. The concept seems to work as expected on Chrome.


Alright so it doesn't work on Firefox and Safari but honestly, neither do 10% of the websites I go to. 88% of all the users in the world still isn't bad, so I'm not willing to throw the idea out entirely.

Diving into how the process works, again, it seems pretty straight forward.

var signin = document.querySelector('#signin');
signin.addEventListener('click', (e) => {
  if (window.PasswordCredential || window.FederatedCredential) {
        password: true,
        federated: {
          providers: ['https://accounts.google.com'],
        mediation: 'optional',
      .then((c) => {
        if (c) {
          switch (c.type) {
            case 'password':
              return sendRequest(c);
            case 'federated':
              return gSignIn(c);
        } else {
          return Promise.resolve();
      .then((profile) => {
        if (profile) {
        } else {
          location.href = '/signin';
      .catch((error) => {
        location.href = '/signin';

If the user has a login then get it. It supports federated logins or passwords and falls back to redirecting to the sign-in page if you cannot locate a login. I tried the samples available here and they seemed to mostly be plug and play. In fact in my testing this seemed to be a far superior user experience to using traditional password managers with browser extensions.

Also remember that even for browsers that don't support it, I'm just falling back to the normal password storage system. So for websites that support it, the experience is magical on Chrome and the same as using a password manager with every other browser. It doesn't cost anything, it isn't complicated and it is a better experience.

I know someone out there is gearing up 

Are Password Managers Better?

One common theme when you search for this stuff is an often repeated opinion that browser password managers are trash and password managers are better. Looking more into how they work, this seems to come with some pretty big asterisks. Most password managers seem to use some JavaScript from their CDN to insert their interface into the form values.

This is a little nerve-racking because websites could interact with that element but also the communication between the password manager is a potential source of problems. Communication to a local HTTP target seems to make sense, but this can be the source of problems (and has been in the past). Example Example Example

So at a minimum you'd need the tool you chose to meet these requirements to reach or exceed the same level of security as the browser built-in manager.

  • The add-on runs in a sandboxed background page
  • Communication between the password manager and the page isn't happening in the DOM
  • Any password element would need to be an iframe or something else that stops the site from interacting with the content
  • CSP is set up flawlessly
  • Communication between the extension and anything outside of the extension is secure and involves some verification step
  • Code validation in pretty much every direction: is the browser non-modified, is the server process valid, is the extension good, etc

This isn't even getting to the actual meat of the encryption on the secrets or the security of the syncing. We're just talking about whether the thing that interacts with the secrets and jams them into the page.

To make a product that does this and does it well and consistently across releases isn't an easy problem. Monitoring for regressions and breaches would be critical, disclosures would be super important to end users and you would need to get your stack vetted by an outside firm kind of a lot. I trust the developers of my web browser in part because I have to and because, over the years, Mozilla has been pretty good to me. The entire browser stack is under constant attack because it has effectively become the new OS we all run.

Well these companies are really good at all that

Are they? Frankly in my research I wasn't really blown away with the amount of technical auditing most of these companies seem to do or produce any evidence of. The only exception to this was 1Password and Bitwarden.


I love that they have a whitepaper available here but nobody finished writing it.

No rush I guess

However they do have actual independent audits of their software. Recent audits done by reputable firms and available for review. You can see all these here. For the record this should be on every single one of these companies website for public review.

Keeper Password Manager

I found what they call a whitepaper but it's 17 pages and basically says "We're ISO certified". That's great I guess, but not the level of detail I would expect at all. You can read it here. This doesn't mean you are doing things correctly, just that you have generated enough documentation to get ISO certified.

Not only do we implement the most secure levels of encryption, we also adhere to very strict internal
practices that are continually audited by third parties to help ensure that we continue to develop secure software and
provide the world’s most secure cybersecurity platform.
Great, can I read these audits?

Dropbox Password

Nothing seems to exist discussing this products technical merits at all. I don't know how it works. I can look into it more if someone can point me to something else, but it seems to be an encrypted file that lives in your Dropbox folder secured with a key generated by Dropbox and returned to you upon enrollment.  


I found a great security assessment from 2016 that seemed to suggest the service was doing pretty well. You can get that here. I wasn't able to find one more recent. Reading their whitepaper here they actually do go into a lot of detail and explain more about how the service works, which is great and I commend them for that.

It's not sufficient though. I'm glad you understand how the process should work but I have no idea if that is still happening or if this is more of an aspirational document. I often understand the ideal way software should work but the real skill of the thing is getting it to work that way.


They absolutely kill it in this department. Everything about them is out in the open like it should be. However sometimes they discover issues, which is good for the project but underscores what I was talking about above. It is hard to write a service that attempts to handle your most sensitive data and inject that data into random websites.

These products introduce a lot of complexity and failure points into the secret management game. All of them with the exception of 1Password seem to really bet the farm on the solo Master/Primary Password concept. This is great if your user picks a good password, but statistically this idea seems super flawed to me. This is a password they're going to enter all the time, won't they pick a crap one? Even with 100,000 iterations on that password it's pretty dangerous.

Plus if you are going to rely on the concept of "well if the Master/Primary Password is good then the account is secure" then we're certainly not justifying the extra work here. It's as good as the Firefox password manager and not as good as the Safari password manager. Download Firefox and set a good Primary Password.

Can we be honest with each other?

I want you to go to this website and I want you to type in your parents password. You know the one, the one they use for everything? The one that's been shouted through the halls and texted/emailed/written on so many post-it notes that any concept of security has long since left the building.

That's the password they're gonna use to secure the vault. They shouldn't, but they're gonna. Now I want you to continue on this trust exercise with me. If someone got access to read/write in a random cross-section of your coworkers computers, are passwords really the thing that is gonna destroy your life? Not an errant PDF, Excel document of customer data or unsecured AWS API key?

I get it, security stuff is fun to read. "How many super computers will it take to break in" feels very sci-fi.

Well but my family/coworkers/lovers all share passwords

I'm not saying there is zero value to a product where there is a concept of sharing and organizing passwords with a nice UI, but there's also no default universal way of doing it. If all the password managers made a spec that they held to that allowed for secure bidirectional sharing between these services, I'd say "yeah the cost/benefit is likely worth it". However chances are if we're in a rush and sharing passwords, I'm going to send you the password through an insecure system anyway.

Plus the concept of sharing introduces ANOTHER huge layer of possible problems. Permission mistakes, associating the secret with the wrong user, the user copying the secret into their personal vault and not getting updated when the shared secret is updated are all weird issues I've seen at workplaces. To add insult to injury, the requirements of getting someone added to a shared folder they need is often so time-consuming people will just bypass the process and copy/paste the secret anyway.

Also let's be honest among ourselves here. Creating one shared login for a bunch of employees to use was always a bad idea. We all knew it was a bad idea and you knew it while you were doing it. Somewhere in the back of your mind you were like "boy it'll suck if someone decides to quit and steals these".

I think we can all agree on this

I know, "users will do it anyway". Sure but you don't have to make it institutional policy. The argument of "well users are gonna share passwords so we should pay a service to allow them to do it easier" doesn't make a lot of sense. I also know sometimes you can't avoid it, but for those values, if they're that sensitive, it might not make sense to share them across all employees in a department. Might make more sense to set them up with a local tool like pass.

Browsers don't prompt the user to make a Master/Primary Password

That is true and perhaps the biggest point in the category of "you should use a password manager". The way the different browsers do this is weird. Chrome effectively uses the users login as the key, on Windows calling a Windows API that encrypts the sqlite database and decrypts it when the user logs in. On the Mac there is a login keychain entry of a random value that seems to serve the same function. If the user is logged in, the sqlite database is accessible. If they aren't, it isn't.

On Firefox there is a Primary Password that you can set that effectively works like most of the password managers that we saw. Unlike password managers this isn't synced, so you would set a different primary for every Firefox device. That means the Firefox account is still controlling what syncs to what, this just ensures that a user who takes the database of username and passwords would need this key to decrypt it.

So for Chrome if your user is logged in, the entire password database is available. On macOS they can get access to the decryption key through the login keychain and on Firefox the value is encrypted in the file but for additional security and disallowing for random users to interact with it through the browser. There is a great write-up of how local browser password stores work here.

There are more steps than Chrome but allows for a Master Password

Is that a sufficient level of security?

Honestly? Yeah I think so. The browser prompts the user to generate a secure value, stores the value, syncs the value securely and then, for 88% of the users on the web, the site can use a well-documented API to automatically fill in that value in the future. I'd love to see Chrome add a few more security levels, some concept of Primary Password so that I can lock the local password storage to something that isn't just me being logged into my user account.

However we're also rapidly reaching a point where the common wisdom is that everything important needs 2FA. So if we're already going to treat the password as a tiered approach, I think a pretty good argument could be made that it is safer for a user to store their passwords in the browser store (understanding that the password was always something that a malicious actor with access to their user account could grab through keyloggers/clipboard theft/etc) and having a 2FA on a phone as compared to what a lot of people do, which is keep the 2FA and the password inside of the same third-party password manager.

TOTPs are just password x2

When you scan that QR code, you are getting back a string that looks something like this:

otpauth://totp/example:[email protected]?algorithm=SHA1&digits=6&issuer=mywebsite&period=30&secret=CelwNEjn3l7SWIW5SCJT

This combined with time gets you your 6 digit code. The value of this approach is twofold: does the user posses another source of authentication and now there is a secret which we know is randomly generated that effectively serves as a second password. This secret isn't exposed to normal users as a string, so we don't need to worry about that.

If I have the secret value I can make the same code. If we remove the second device component like we do with password managers, what we're saying is "TOTP is just another random password". If we had a truly random password to begin with, I'm not adding much to the security model by adding in the 2FA but sticking it in the same place.

What if they break into my phone

On iOS even without a Primary password set on Firefox, it prompts for FaceID authentication before allowing someone access to the list of stored passwords. So that's already a pretty intense level of security. Add in a Primary password and we've reached the same level of security as 1Password. Chrome is the same story.

It's the same level of security with Android. Attempt to open the saved passwords, get a PIN or biometric check depending on the phone. That's pretty good! Extra worried about it? Use a TOTP app that requires biometrics before they reveal that code. Here is one for iOS

Even if someone steals your phone and attempts to break into your accounts, there are some non-trivial security measures in their way with the standard browser password storage combined with a free TOTP app that checks identity.

I use my password manager for more than passwords

Sure and so do I, but that doesn't really matter to my point. The common wisdom that all users would benefit from the use of a dedicated password manager is iffy at best. We've now seen a commonly recommended one become so catastrophically breached that anything stored there is now needs to be considered leaked. This isn't the first credential leak or the 10th or the 100th, but now there is just a constant never-ending parade of password leaks and cracks.

So if that is true and a single password cannot ever truly serve as the single step of authentication for important resources, then we're always going to be relying on adding on another factor. Therefore the value a normal user gets out of a password manager vs the browser they're already using is minimal. With passkeys and Credentials Management API the era of exposing the user to the actual values being used in the authentication step is coming to a close anyway. Keys synced by the browser vendor will become the default authentication step for users.

In the light of that reality, it doesn't really make sense to bother users with the additional work and hassle of running a new program to manage secrets.

Summary of my rant

  • Normal users don't need to worry about password managers and would be better served by using the passwords the browser generates and investing that effort into adding 2FA using a code app on their phone or a YubiKey.
  • In the face of new APIs and standards, the process of attempting to manage secrets with an external manager will becoming exceedingly challenging. It is going to be much much easier to pick one browser and commit to it everywhere vs attempting to use a tool to inject all these secrets
  • With the frequency of breaches we've already accepted that passwords at, at best, part of a complete auth story. The best solution we have right now is "2 passwords".
  • Many of the tools users rely on to manage all their secrets aren't frequently audited or if they are, any security assessment of their stack isn't being published.
  • For more technical users looking to store a lot of secrets for work, using something like pass will likely fulfill that need with a smaller less complicated and error-prone technical implementation. It does less so less stuff can fail.
  • If you are going to use a password manager, there are only two options: 1Password and Bitwarden. 1Password is the only one that doesn't rely exclusively on the user-supplied password, so if you are dealing with very important secrets this is the right option.
  • It is better to tell users "shared credentials are terrible and please only use them if you absolutely have no choice at all" than to set up a giant business-wide tool of shared credentials which are never rotated.

My hope is with passkeys and the Credentials Management API this isn't a forever problem. Users won't be able to export private keys, so nobody is going to be sharing accounts. The Credentials Management UI and flow is so easy for developers and users that it becomes the obvious choice for any new service. My suspicion is we'll still be telling users to set up 2FA well after its practical lifespan has ended, but all we're doing is replicating the same flow as the browser password storage.

Like it or not you are gonna start to rely on the browser password manager a lot soon, so might as well get started now.

Wanna send me angry messages? What else is the internet good for! https://c.im/@matdevdug