Bypassing The Password, Part 1: Windows 10 Scaremongering

Microsoft's hype of its upcoming biometrics system in Windows 10, spouting the virtues of biometrics over traditional password-based security, seems misguided at best -- misleading at worst.

Joe Stanganelli, Attorney, Beacon Hill Law

April 20, 2015

4 Min Read

Microsoft recently announced that it's building new biometric enhancements into Windows 10. The company boasts that its new biometric security platform -- with the friendly name Windows Hello -- offers support for facial, iris, and fingerprint scanning as a complete alternative to passwords altogether.

"[N]ot only is Windows Hello more convenient than typing a password -- it's more secure!" beams Microsoft VP Joe Belfiore in a company blog post justifying his claim of added security by implying that passwords inherently compromise security because they have to be stored on a device or a server.

This seems disingenuous -- or, at least, seriously misguided.

Passwords have their problems, to be sure, as they are typically only as good as the person making them. (One might call those who use "123456" as their passwords examples of InfoSec Darwinism waiting to happen.) Additionally, many password reset methods can be problematic -- especially when those in charge of the resets fail to follow proper procedure and policy.

Phishing, too, represents a significant password risk. Enterprising (if frequently artless) social engineers blast out spoof emails to get a user to click on a malicious link -- which then may trick the user into giving up his password with a phony login screen and/or installing malware onto the user's computer. Fortunately, phishing attempts can usually be spotted by the trained eye, and basic data security awareness and training can effectively combat password phishing. Some companies have been successful by sending fake phishing emails to their employees. Anyone who clicks on a link is informed that they would have fallen for a phishing scam and then compelled to take a quick online training course on the spot. Companies using this method, according to security consultant Chris Hadnagy, have seen up to a 75% reduction in successful phishing attempts.

Biometrics arguably are at least as problematic as passwords as a single-sign-on factor. Fingerprints have been shown to be easily hackable, as have iris and face scans. Indeed, security researchers have shown that fingerprints and other biometric markers can be phished and reappropriated just as easily as passwords can.

Although Microsoft boasts that Windows Hello allows users to be "more secure" by using biometrics to avoid storing passwords locally, it will reportedly store biometric credential data locally. This potentially allows a hacker or thief the same access to data pertaining to user login credentials -- password or no.

The problem of passwords is less of an inherent one. The issue is more related to password management. Significant password breaches have largely happened because of other vulnerabilities combined with a lack of sufficient (sometimes any) encryption. This was the issue Adobe had in 2013 when it suffered a potentially record-setting data breach that compromised more than 150 million customers' information. Adobe's encryption was weak overall, its backup systems used were obsolete technology, its user password hints were stored in plaintext, and its user passwords were not salted and hashed -- making many of its user passwords easily guessable by even the most neophyte cryptologist -- and potentially compromising Adobe's encryption key entirely.

Therefore, it would seem that as long as you don't have the hacking power of a nation-state working to infiltrate your systems, and you and your employees practice a modicum of intelligence, regular old multifactor authentication with a password component (combined with a biometric component, if you like) can be plenty secure. Passwords aren't the problem. Stupidity is.

[Read the following two parts of this series: Bypassing The Password, Part 2: Trusted Identities and Bypassing The Password, Part 3: Freedom Compromised.]

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About the Author(s)

Joe Stanganelli

Attorney, Beacon Hill Law

Joe Stanganelli is founder and principal of Beacon Hill Law, a Boston-based general practice law firm. His expertise on legal topics has been sought for several major publications, including US News and World Report and Personal Real Estate Investor Magazine. Joe is also a professional communications consultant. He has been working with social media for many years, even in the days of local BBSs, well before the term "social media" was invented. From 2003 to 2005, Joe ran Grandpa George Productions, a New England entertainment and media production company. He has also worked as a professional actor, director, and producer, and playwright.

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