Maybe Security is Harder than Rocket Science

I was giving a talk last year about software development and I made an off-hand remark that most of developers out there shouldn’t be writing authentication schemes for applications. My reasoning was that most people aren’t good at writing these systems and there are plenty of good authentication schemes already written that you can incorporate into a system.

However there are some bad ones as well. While I hope you don’t pick any of them, I also know that many of you might just build a poorly architected system because your focus isn’t on authentication. Your focus is on some other aspect of your application. I’m sure you know some of the good advice for building systems, as well as the best ways to handle passwords, but do you follow it? Under deadlines? When you have pressure to focus on more important aspects of your system? Or do you implement anti-patterns because it’s easy?

The European Space Agency (ESA) is full of rocket scientists. Literally, as they send rockets and astronauts into orbit around the earth. However they were hacked recently and the disclosures aren’t pretty. They not only had personal information released, but passwords were stored in plain text. What’s worse, 39% of the passwords were three letters.

Three.

I’m sure many of the people working on ESA systems were smart individuals, and they may be great web developers that build beautiful, useful sites. However their security programming is extremely poor, and really, there’s no excuse. Not even the pressure of scientists that want simple, easy logins.

It’s 2016. No short passwords, no limitations on complexity such as preventing special characters (one site recently didn’t allow a “,” for me), and no storage in a reversible format. There are lots of best practices, but they require some effort to learn, understand, and implement, as well as modification over time to keep up with changing guidelines.

Or, as I suggested, just stop implementing this yourself. Use some authentication scheme that’s been shown to work well with few vulnerabilities.

Steve Jones

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