Law in the Internet Society

How I Enslaved Myself With Google's Passwords Manager

-- By MotazArshied - 07 Oct 2019

That Night Google Convinced Me to Register for this Course

Passwords manager was introduced to help generating and retrieving our passwords, usually by storing those passwords in an encrypted database. If you use Google Chrome's passwords manager, as I shamefully do, then the method your passwords are being saved by Chrome is depending on whether you want to store and use them across devices. Turns out this is exactly how I systematically acted without understanding the potential repercussions.

After arriving in Manhattan Island, and just before the beginning of fall term, I decided to purchase my first ever MacBook. So, I went on to visit that famous glass cubicle building near Lincoln Center and when I returned home, with a heavy bag and a much lighter pocket, I started setting up my new device.

One of the first actions I took was to install Google Chrome browser and log onto my Google account, while preparing myself for the exhausting process of re-log onto all of my other accounts (social media, student account, governmental and professional services, financial and etc.). It is sufficed to say that many of those accounts contain sensitive information, but Google went on anyway and automatically retrieved all of my passwords for those accounts, one after the other, re-entering all of my information instantly. The morning after I registered for this course.

Explaining Password Manager

"A password should contain at least one letter, one number, one special character..." and on and on it goes! We all been through it and it seems like the majority of us have created endless variations of personal passwords. Seeking to remedy this complex, inconvenient nowadays-reality situation, a software was created and called passwords manager, which relies on its users to store their credentials and sensitive information, to be retrieved later on when needed. Basically, it requires the user to remember "only" one master password in order to decrypt the passwords manager database. The passwords manager stores full URLs next to the stored passwords and it does not log on automatically to those browsers, presumably in sake of creating another safety layer.

The Risks I Have Entered Myself Into

According to Chrome's latest extension in the respect of passwords, Passwords Checkup, my password manager stores information of 68 different sites: 53 of these passwords are reused, 23 of these accounts are using weak passwords and there are no compromised passwords. It is pretty shameful. However, people assume that provided with this information a user can be reassured of his safety. I argue the opposite.

Because of the master password idea of passwords manager, if the database is insecure, then all the "advantages" that comes with it are wasted and from what I have researched, Google's passwords manager is far from secure. Untrue to their own claim that passwords manager stores the info in Google's servers, Chrome actually stores this info in SQLite database file in the user profile directory. By my amateur understanding, the SQLite database is a self-contained, server-less, zero-configuration, transactional SQL database engine and its code is in the public domain and is thus free for use for any purpose, commercial or private. Even a non-programmer lawyer like me can sense that this is not safe nor secure.

Actually, this is not a security problem. SQLite is free software that is in everything, as you might expect. You got the feature description from the website, so you see that it's a component that helps all sorts of software systems by providing basic database functionality that is strong and in all senses free. But the places.sqlite database managed by your browser (by pretty much all browsers, in fact) doesn't have the decryption key for your passwords in it. The passwords are stored in encrypted form in the database SQLite manages: "attacking" the database cannot compromise the password.

Thus potentially, any user to this database file can make modifications and access my personal data.

This idea of convenience that I unreluctantly enslaved myself for has exposed not only my private emails, conversations, files and etc. to outside threats, but also my very own property, especially my financial assets. Currently, these financial assets surround around my tuition payment and as a student sponsored by a full scholarship, who's in charge of utilizing the sum granted towards academic-financial duties, I became terrified. The claws of anyone smart enough to hack Chrome's database can reach the throat of all of my achievements, regardless of how much Chrome is trying to reassure me that my information has not been compromised.

Not less importantly, I have risked my own human control of my very own interests, connections, achievements and life through the instrument of the web. This conclusion led me to ask a final question: how do I take control back? In other, more subjective words, how could I redefine "convenience"?

Reflecting Upon My Indifferent Behavior

Second Thoughts

As can be inferred from the above, I have been contemplating with this idea and theme for a while. However, unlike the previous sections, this part was rather unclear for me to write - until our latest lecture when Prof. Moglen analogized nowadays and futuristic technology's convenience as "stuff our mothers used to do for us". Applying this idea here was natural for me: obviously my mother used to systematically remind me of important matters in my daily life, just as important as my current passwords and in the same systematic manner passwords manager does. Therefore, in the spirit of reminiscing of simpler times, I began second thinking.

The first-second thought I had was copying passwords manager's information, before permanently deleting it, to a notebook or other non web-connected instrument that I usually carry with me, such as a calendar or a professional notebook. There is a clear disadvantage of losing the digital comfort in this thought but I believe that overtime it will transform into a satisfying feeling of regaining human control over life.

The second-second thought I had was to disconnect from most of these platforms entirely. The fear of missing out is truly real when it comes to social media but is it too naive to think that if one maintains his desirable relationships steadily instead of superficially liking and commenting virtually, the FOMO would be neutralized? On the other hand, there are some services I most likely won't (and can't) disconnect from (Faculty services, financial apps and Twiki for example), which leads me thinking that these kind of passwords for these platforms will have to be stored manually by me.

So you might want to think a little bit about how to make memorable and more secure passphrases than the "one letter in each case, one number, one punctuation mark" nonsense people are mostly taught to follow. Investigate passphrases. Find an XKCD cartoon on the subject, which will prove memorable for you and introduce you to XKCD. That will help you figure out what best practices really are, and when you are using them, your security will immediately improve.

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r10 - 06 Dec 2019 - 00:42:58 - MotazArshied
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