Stop Blaming Users For Bad Passwords

Another year, another vendor study about how users choose absurdly bad passwords to protect their precious online accounts. This year’s study came courtesy of Keeper, while prior years’ reports (for 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011) came from SplashData, a password management service for small businesses. Spoiler alert, the most used password this year is the same as last year: ‘123456’.

Every time I see one of these “studies”, I die a little inside. It’s not because poor passwords aren’t a real problem – they are: proper authentication is critical to defending the mobile and desktop internet applications of today, and the Internet of Things applications of tomorrow. I hate these reports because they blame the victim, the user.

Oh sure, these articles might levy some small admonishment aimed at applications (“the bigger responsibility lies with website owners who fail to enforce the most basic password complexity policies”), but by and large the unspoken message is “look at how stupid users are for using one of these passwords.” These click-bait articles are designed to deliver a dose of Schadenfreude to the reader, and allow them to wallow in smug superiority while they giddily guffaw at gems like ‘123456789’ (“Oh look, some moron actually thought that was better than ‘123456’—what a dolt!”).

Everybody knows bad passwords are a problem. Everybody knows you shouldn’t re-use passwords across multiple sites. Everybody knows you should pick a password with a mixture of characters, but not a dictionary words (except, well, if you’re using a passphrase, in which case you should use dictionary words, but only the right way). Everybody knows all of this, and much more.

There’s just one problem: users just don’t care.

Just look at the stats over the last 5 years: some variant of ‘123456’ has appeared at or near the top of every one of these lists. Who’s the bigger idiot: the user for whom ‘123456’ keeps working and with little or no obvious adverse impact, or the apps and web sites that allow such bad passwords in the first place and ultimately suffer all the reputation damage or regulatory fallout?

These kinds of articles do little to advance awareness of a real solution to this problem, nor do they make much of an attempt to do so. It’s telling that such articles rarely mention the very real advances being made to address the problems posed by passwords, such as:

On that last item: there’s literally no reason to even ask the user for a password anymore. App developers can use both Touch ID and FingerprintManager to build password-less authentication schemes like FIDO (check out the video below). Right now. Today. Like, as I’m speaking to you. There’s even commercial SDKs that developers can just plug into their app to perform this function with minimal additional code.

Instead of blaming the user, how about apportioning some blame to the apps and their developers? How about calling out the applications that allow such ridiculously poor passwords? How about shaming sites that actively disable password managers? How about some link-love for sites like TwoFactorAuth.org, which catalog which sites do and don’t support strong authentication options, and enable users to demand better?

But of course, that’s not the purpose of these articles. The articles aren’t about getting rid of passwords. They’re about positioning a vendor’s technology as a solution to this problem. Yes, a password manager when used properly is better than nothing. Yes, adding SMS two-factor authentication will reinforce poor passwords.

But passwords are an addiction, and these bolt-on half-measures are methadone. Heroine is bad, they say, but let’s not be too hasty about going cold turkey.

It’s time articles like this called out apps and developers to kick the password habit.

Alipay's offices in Hangzhou, China

How Alipay Hacks Its Culture

If you’ve had the opportunity to work with a company in an Asian country (and China, Japan, or South Korea in particular), you’ve undoubtedly observed a marked difference in the role of hierarchy in their culture. These countries feature a high power distance index (PDI) where “lower ranking individuals of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally”. For example, China has an high PDI of about 80 versus the United States’ PDI of 40 and Western European country’s PDIs of between approximately 25 and 40 (see PDIs by country).

In high PDI cultures, authority is centralized and subordinates are unlikely to approach and contradict their bosses directly; unfortunately, elevated PDI has an adverse impact on innovation. Research on the correlation between power distance and innovation has shown “a strong negative relationship between Hofstede’s dimensions of power distance and GII innovation scores as well as a strong positive relationship between individualism and GII innovation scores.”

Translation? If you can’t tell the boss he’s wrong, then bad ideas proliferate while good ideas stagnate.

However, many organizations are trying to break with traditional attitudes, promote flatter hierarchies, and encourage innovation. I got to see one such effort firsthand during a recent project working with Alipay in Hangzhou (we were enabling Alipay to use the Samsung Galaxy S® 5 fingerprint sensor to authorize mobile payments).

The key to Alipay’s strategy starts with a simple idea: how do people address each other in conversation?

Here’s what “Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands” has to say about how people address each other in China in a business setting:

The Chinese are very sensitive to status and titles, so you should use official titles, such as “General,” “Committee Member,” or “Bureau Chief” when possible.

and:

Most people you meet should be addressed with a title and their name. If a person does not have a professional title (President, Engineer, Doctor), simply user “Mr.” or “Madam,” “Mrs.,” or “Miss,” plus the name.

Every time you talk with someone in your organization, you are being constantly reminded of both their rank and your rank in relation to them. Hence Alipay’s tactic to change the cultural status quo: remove this constant reminder of a person’s rank from daily work.

The first thing a new Alipay employee does when they join the company is choose a nickname (typically a character from Chinese history, literature, or popular culture). From then on, that’s how people know them. No more “Director <name>” or “Manager <name>”; now it’s “Zhu Bajie” (a character from a famous Chinese literature classic) or “One Night” (???).

In practice, what I observed in my time at Alipay seems to speak positively of their efforts. Unlike other projects I’ve worked on in Asia, the project at Alipay was punctuated by a completely different dynamic. There was the kind of constant communication, rapid-fire discussion, and open back-and-forth disagreements that would be strikingly familiar to anyone from Silicon Valley.

What small hack could you put in place to change the culture of your organization?

Three Features That Spotify Needs

Spotify Logo

For Christmas, Ashley gave me a Premium subscription to Spotify (the “all you can eat” music subscription service). I’ve been really impressed with the quality of the music, the selection, and the mobile application’s capabilities. It’s a whole different world when you can access the majority of humankind’s music at the touch of a button. Finally, someone has figured out how to make people stop pirating material: publish it all, publish it now, and publish it at a reasonable price that nullifies most people’s reasons for pirating music online.

That said, there are still a few features I would like to see added to the product to really make it shine. While Spotify does have capabilities for developers to build applications on top of Spotify, the current selection of applications are a bit weak. In many cases, they’re almost purely marketing ploys for various brands. Here’s some suggestions for apps that Spotify should either build themselves or encourage others to build.

Shazam Integration: Audio Discovery + “Bookmarking”

Shazam was a savior for me for a long time – nothing like being able to have a definitive answer to the question “what song is that they’re playing in this movie/theatre/coffee shop right now?”. However, using Shazam with Spotify is currently a multi-step process: open Shazam, tag the song to determine the song and artist, then switch to Spotify, search for the same song/artist, and add to a playlist for future listening.

Instead, as a user I want to be able to pull out my phone, start Spotify, and hit a button to determine the song and add it to a list for future listening. Think of it as the equivalent of Instapaper or Pocket, but for music instead of articles on the web. I should be able to use Spotify as a way of collecting interesting songs, wherever I hear them, and then queuing them for future listening.

Nike+ Integration: The Perfect Running Playlist Generator

When I go running, the music being played has a noticeable impact on my pacing. I regularly use the Nike+ running application my iPhone to play a running playlist, but the only music playback options are to play a pre-existing playlist in either a linear or “shuffled” order. My options to are either to spend a bunch of time building playlists, or to have a sub-par performance when a cool-down song comes on when I’m right in the middle of my run.

As a user, what I want is a way to have Spotify automatically generate a running playlist, based on the artists I follow or a radio station I’ve created. As an input to the process, the application should ask me about how far I intend to run or for what period of time. These inputs could be used to drive the selection of songs whose tempo match my target running pace, resulting in a subconscious signal to me to speed up or slow down my running pace. This playlist should be linked to the Nike+ running application, so that I can trigger this feature as the playlist for my run.

Life Soundtrack: Location/Context-Aware Radio

Often when I travel, I create a playlist to match the destination. Whether it’s a roadtrip where I’ll be driving to a destination or wandering around a strange city, I like to have music that I associate with a place. For example, nothing beats bursting through the doors of Healthrow Airport with The Clash’s “London Calling” at eleven, or strolling past the British Houses of Parliament with The Beatles’ “Tax Man” reminding you of one of life’s unavoidable certainties.

What I’d like to be able to do is have Spotify generate a playlist for me on the fly, based on my location. This playlist would select songs and artists that have a connection to my current context, including inputs like my physical location, the time of year, and my speed of travel. Combining that information with data about artists (where they were born, lived, performed) and songs (lyrical context, references to the current location, place where the song was written) would allow Spotify to construct a nuanced playlist that reflected my current surroundings, and provided a perfect backdrop to life.

The Death of “Stuff”

With our recent move to Silicon Valley, I indulged one of my guilty pleasures: getting rid of stuff. While I know this vice smacks of OCD, there is nothing I enjoy more than rummaging through the stuff I own, turning the object in question over in my mind and thinking, “Do I really need this any more?” And of course, this habit extends not just to the paraphernalia I already own, but to every other piece of stuff that threatens to enter my orbit.

It’s becoming easier than ever to simply not own things. A quick inventory of goods in the house reveals that most are being replaced either by substitutes that take up less space or, in extreme cases, no space at all:

  • Television: Gone is our behemoth Sony Wega, with its bulging CRT. Our new flatscreen is probably one-hundredth the volume, despite the fact that it has a larger screen. And, if we were so inclined, we could hang the TV on the wall and forego the media stand.
  • Music: I haven’t handled a CD for the past five years for any other purpose than to rip it in iTunes and shove it on our networked hard drive. With services like Spotify and Pandora offering subscription-based music for less than the price of a CD per month (free for Spotify if you’re listening from a laptop), even the compact form of the hard drive seems overbearing and unnecessary.
  • Movies: While I was never one to collect DVDs, a small collection of favorite titles accumulated nevertheless. But with on-demand services like Xfinity and Netflix able to provide just about any movie to us any time we want, the idea of holding onto data-imprinted plastic discs seems quaint at best.
  • Books: The family bookcase suffered the most significant losses during our recent move, with the size of our library declining by half. So long dead-tree technology, hello Kindle DX, and Kindle app for iPhone and iPad. It would appear bookcases may be a thing of the past (a fact that has not gone unnoticed by IKEA). One Billy bookcase down, one to go.

The exercise got me thinking about how this trend could dramatically reshape society if applied across the entire population. Households have doubled in size since the 1950s while the average family size declined by almost a third resulting in a significant increase in the per-capita size of housing. But do we really need all that space anymore? It makes you wonder what other services or product innovations could drive down the size of households?

In the opening chapter of “Natural Capitalism“, the Rocky Mountain Institute examined a number of small changes that could be made to the modern car to create what they term a “hypercar”. Simply changing the car body’s material from steel to carbon fiber resulted in an interesting feedback loop:

  1. If the car is made of carbon fiber, rather than steel, the car will be lighter
  2. If the car is lighter then the engine doesn’t need to be as powerful
  3. If the engine doesn’t need to be as powerful, the engine can be smaller
  4. If the engine is smaller and less powerful, then the car doesn’t need a large transmission or brakes

And so on; one small change begets a virtuous cycle of reduction. I suspect we may see something similar happen as many of our consumer goods get replaced by services, especially those than can be delivered electronically.

Of course, just like the hypercar, eliminating the assumption that goods need to be delivered physically has dramatic consequences for the supply chain that previously delivered the physical good. While the most readily visible consequence is the slow death of retail stores, the impact of the shift to electronic goods goes much deeper. Applying the same logic as before:

  1. If the good can be made of bits instead of atoms, the good can be delivered online
  2. If the good is delivered online, then the good doesn’t have to be transported to the customer
  3. If the good doesn’t need to be transported to the customer, then the good’s supply chain no longer requires raw materials (paper, plastic, cardboard, metal), physical stores or warehouses, transportation, or fuel
  4. If the good doesn’t require those materials or infrastructure, then it doesn’t require labor to mine the resources, or manufacture and transport the goods, and significantly reduces the labor required to sell the final product

I suspect (probably incorrectly) that most of the consumer goods that can be “digitized” have already been digitized (books, movies, music) and the pace of change for those industries will decline — there’s only so much extraneous stuff we can eliminate from our households. However, as Marc Andreessen pointed in his epic “Why Software is Eating the World” article, this trend is just getting started within government and industry.

Rails 3 on Dreamhost via Capistrano

Dreamhost has started rolling out Rails 3.0.3 to its servers; however, there’s a couple of snags that may prevent you from quickly and easily deploying a Rails app. I’ve spent the better part of a couple of hours overcoming these challenges, some of which might have been due to me climbing the Rails 3 deployment learning curve. I was running into all kinds of problems with “500 Internal Server Error”, as well as being unable to get the required gems installed properly, including the required native extensions.

Allow me to save you some time.

First problem: the bundle executable isn’t in your PATH environment by default, either for login shells or non-login shells. The fix is simple – just add the right path to your .bashrc and .bash_profile: export PATH="/usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/bin:$PATH"

Second problem: you need to make sure to use bundle install properly to resolve and install your dependency gems. Simplest solution is to add require 'bundler/capistrano' to the top of your deploy.rb.

Those two small additions will resolve problems deploying Rails 3 apps via Capistrano on Dreamhost. Happy coding!

We Are The Walking Dead

Lately, I’ve been devouring Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead”, a comic set in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland with a narrative focused on the daily lives of the non-zombie survivors. It sounds bleak, but it’s a good drama piece on how things fall apart in a crisis whose scale is beyond any individual’s comprehension.

I’ve started to see it as a bit of a parable for the current global situation and the probable future scenarios that await us: the constant hunt for food and shelter, and the vigorous and brutal means used to secure those same essentials. While most of the population of our world hasn’t turned into actual zombies, there’s a lot of parallels between our world and that of the comic.

Consider survival. Regardless of your current financial situation, you will be affected by the crisis and your ability to maintain your quality of life will face increasing strain. Are you prepared? I remain dumbfounded at the shabby state of Canadian and Americans’ finances, and individuals’ overall lack of restraint or planning. A quick run through the numbers courtesy of GreaterFool.ca shows that there are a lot of people out there who:

  • Lack of significant savings: According to Garth, seven in ten Canadians have no corporate pensions, sixty per cent have no money saved, and only five in ten have RRSPs. Of the fifty percent of Canadians that do have an active RRSP, the average amount saved is a little over $40K.
  • Have significant debt: Canadian families owe $1.45 for every dollar they earn, and carry an average debt of more than $25K.
  • Are overexposed to risk: Canadians are funneling a more and more money into real estate. Average cost of a house in Vancouver is upwards of 8x on average household income.
  • Are at or nearing retirement: There are nine million boomers comprising 32% of the population of Canada. The country is aging, and it’s only going to get worse. Oh, and we’re not alone.

No sweat, I hear you saying, I’ve sorted my own finances out. Which is just fantastic – at least someone’s been thinking ahead. In preparation for the Financial Zombieland that awaits us, you’ve at least been stockpiling cans, guns and ammunition. You’ll at least make it past the first wave of the outbreak.

Unfortunately, the fallout of the crisis will last slightly longer than a winter storm that knocks out the power. It will also dramatically reshape our society – permanently. While your larder may be full now, I believe the breadth and depth of the crisis will conspire to drain your reserves slowly but steadily in a number of ways:

  • The safety net will slowly disappear: Governments, being borderline insolvent, will look to dramatically trim expenditures while expanding taxation. One only has to look at the four-year “plan” in Ireland, and the economic restructuring in England to get an idea of what’s on the horizon for previously government-provided social services.
  • Things will cost more: Anyone who’s been paying attention has noticed that resources are becoming more hotly contested. China is playing chicken with the IMF by gobbling up resource rights in Africa in exchange for infrastructure, a flagrant violation of IMF’s rules that require those rights to be used to pay each African nation’s outstanding debts. Not only will resources cost more, but demographics and entitlements will force governments to find new sources of revenue. Read that: raise taxes.
  • Growth will be constrained: The natural response on the part of consumers and companies will be to find ways to conserve cash. In the wake of the economic crisis, US savings rates have increased dramatically. Canadians, believing they’ve avoided the worst, have decreased their personal savings rates; however, this will change as it becomes clear that no one can escape the grasp of the global economic decline.

The upside of this reshaping of our society is that it might be just what we needed. Just as in “The Walking Dead”, this crisis may have an upside. If nothing else, it may force us to shuffle our personal priorities. Perhaps we’ll reduce our consumption, redefine how we work, and reverse some of the global destruction we’ve wrought.

We’re All Anguilla Now

Times are interesting, and only bound to get more wooly. While this blog has been on an unofficial hiatus, one part of Douglas Coupland’s piece in the Globe and Mail (“A radical pessimist’s guide to the next 10 years”) caught my eye enough to demand a personal anecdote in support of his conclusions:

7) Retail will start to resemble Mexican drugstores

In Mexico, if one wishes to buy a toothbrush, one goes to a drugstore where one of every item for sale is on display inside a glass display case that circles the store. One selects the toothbrush and one of an obvious surplus of staff runs to the back to fetch the toothbrush. It’s not very efficient, but it does offer otherwise unemployed people something to do during the day.

A couple of years ago, Ashley and I were living in Anguilla, a British protectorate in the Caribbean. It’s a small island with a similarly diminutive population and economy. At one point we had to visit the immigration office to get appropriate documentation added to our passports to allow me to work. At the door, we were greeted by an immigration employee who instructed us to sit in the chairs until we were called. There was no one else in the office, but we did as we were told.

Despite the lack of other patrons, we waited for ten minutes until a second employee called us up to the counter. She asked us a few questions and eventually asked for us to provide our passports. When we surrendered our passports, the second employee handed them to a third employee, who dutifully noted our passport numbers in a large, leatherbound ledger.

Keep in mind that this was, by all accounts, rush hour in the immigration office and we were the only patrons. One couple being served by three separate employees for a single transaction.

At the time, I thought it was a unique incident; however, ever since returning to North America I’ve noticed similar patterns with increasing regularity. Whether it’s the DMV, customs, and even areas of the private sector, the pattern of surplus labour leading to invented jobs and weirdly inefficient processes has become inescapable. In my eyes, we’re all Anguilla now.

Come One, Come Oh

One of my longtime friends, Kevin Cheng, is getting married today to Coley Wopperer on what is quite possibly the nerdiest of days: 10/10/10. It is so nerdy, that it justified a New York Times article:

For those of a geeky bent, the date has another layer of importance – it is made up entirely of ones and zeros, the binary language of computing. Kevin Cheng and Coley Wopperer of San Francisco have been waiting nearly two years for their wedding date to roll around, having realized over dinner with friends in 2008 that, as one suggested, “you could have a binary-themed wedding!” he recalled.

But the nerdiness of this occasion will not end there. In March of 2008, I sent Kevin an email with a GPG-encrypted message:

Hey Kevin,

This is a very important message. Store it in your archive – you will need it at some future time, but for what purpose, I can’t say at this point. The following is plain text encrypted using GPG to a passphrase I will reveal to you at some point in the future, once an important event has come to pass. It’ll be a nice surprise when I do, trust me.

Sorry for the James Bond factor, but it’ll all make sense in the future. Here’s the GPG encrypted text block:

—–BEGIN PGP MESSAGE—–

Version: GnuPG v1.4.8 (Darwin)

jA0EAwMCgjMYeM6sMKdgycCyKEE22UyVt1zel3HuOPAsQvFOUt10gCQar6ivqTDt

q5v9becLtkp00bo0/43zG/X0jKNo0Lhh0TVNEVmmFaeEIizDTlMrqZCRByPGN83q

QIUWs/MgOQ4zmeEllUyzHbbBYWtCMqlNKUY9vy3NNa0KCJGbAQ8NT67suV9wKUXR

p2Z1/+iJwDnOzaJw32CnJhnLc9Edb3BkkOwMivAhQw0kwKMByejw7melXemf75cK

fhjx0+LMFwl1YcdBFkRUJLQArT3KuiUzbXHp8vLtXGKeUgClHqUAOEiPmdjFQHir

CXc8E0Vy20pmgNVfaAPy8GZFekslyM9Nb9InvBWufF63tg3KAOT3E8xl1qPMi4Gs

vgkrkfo2tnQKDg2BS5/VJ+WC6eBZ+wk8FGoU3X5b6oSTADJetDzlM+wsrERbXqyG

k0hV8J1Ijf2MP5s8aMMq7MezYzQS50bH4tW//SehXhCTrLo8/bxGDgfL/KwkhPeo

Ru71Gg==

=0gbj

—–END PGP MESSAGE—–

Brendon

Brendon J. Wilson

www.brendonwilson.com

Now, on the day of his marriage, the time has come to reveal the passphrase for the message to reveal the message. So, my gift to you Kevin and Coley, as small a token as it may be, is the passphrase to that message: itoldyouso.

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