Passwords are great...

Cory Hardman · July 28, 2021

I am working on a product called Verify. One of its stated objectives is to kill the use of passwords. I believe that in order to replace something, you need to understand why it exists in the first place. In the case of passwords, where you the use and hatred is ubiquitous, there has to be a compelling reason for the ongoing use. So lets explore why passwords are great.

Passwords are nominally a something you know factor of the three standard authentication factors (1 - something you know, 2 - something you have, and 3 - something you are). Passwords have become the de facto authentication mechanism for most of the digital age. The de facto status has come because Passwords have a ton of great properties compared to the other factors:

  • Passwords are always with a person. A user always knows what they know.
  • Don’t depend on physical attributes about a person that may change. People lose fingers, have grease fire incidents and scare their face, etc.
  • Don’t require extra hardware. Most interactive devices have a keyboard input mechanism of some sort.
  • Revocable – You can always change a password and say the old password is no longer valid if you believe it has been compromised
  • Easy to implement in just about every context from app on mobile device, website on desktop, to command line interfaces.
  • Easily shared – while not a great security property, users can and do share passwords with each other. Look no further than Netflix account sharing where this is a feature.
  • Every digital user has used a password and thus user training is not required. This is a key premise of Troy Hunt’s essay on Why [insert thing here] is not a password killer.
    • As an aside, I think the same effect is occurring with SMS OTP mechanisms. Users are seeing this form of authentication more and more and becoming aware of how it works and thus more companies implement this flow instead of some alternative “something you have” factor.
  • (Added 2021-07-30 per feedback from Hancheng Zhong) In the US, currently passwords are protected from the government forcing disclosure by the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution. This makes passwords the only authentication factor that can not be taken by the government in a criminal investigation.

As you can see, passwords have a lot of benefits and these are the reasons password use continues to endure. Any product that attempts to unseat passwords will need to provide compelling alternatives to each of these points. In a follow up, I’m going to write about why passwords suck. In particular about the attacks and the unfortunate policies that have been created in an effort to combat those attacks – ultimately why those policies are failing users and companies that rely on passwords still.

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