Password-vault software can work well but needs to go further

As I was reviewing the Fujitsu Lifebook SH771 business ultraportable computer lately, I had a chance to use the Fujitsu-supplied Softex Omnipass password vault that came with this computer. It worked with the Fujitsu laptop’s fingerprint reader to permit a “login-with-fingerprint” experience for the sites I regularly visit. For example, I was simply logging in to Facebook, this site’s admin panel, LinkedIn, ProBlogger forum and the like simply by swiping my finger acrss that laptop’s fingerprint sensor.

What is a password-vault program

A password-vault program stores the passwords you need for various applications and online services in an encrypted local file which I would describe as a “keyring file” and inserts the correct usernames and passwords in to the login forms for the applications and Web sites. You can only get to this password list if you log in using a master password or similar credentials.

This works well with a security-preferred arrangement where you create separate passwords for each online service that you use and avoid using single-sign-on options of the kind that Facebook and Google offer with other sites. Some of these programs work with varying authentication setups such as a fingerprint reader or a smart card. They can even support two-factor authentication arrangements like using your fingerprint or a Trusted Platform Module token as well as you keying in your master password  for a high-security operating environment.

Some of these programs also have a password-generation module so that you can insert a random high-security password string in to the “New Password” and “Confirm New Password” fields of a password-change form.

The login experience with these programs

When a password-vault program is running, it works with the browser or some applications to detect login screens. Then, you can set them to capture your user credentials from the login screen, typically by invoking a “Remember Password” function.

Then, when you subsequently log in to the Website, you authenticate yourself to the password vault with your Master Password, fingerprint or whatever you set up and the program logs you in to that site with the correct username and password for that site. Some programs may require you to authenticate when you log in to the computer or start the Web browser and persist the authentication while you are browsing the Web.

You can have a situation where the behaviour of these programs can be very inconsistent with capturing or supplying passwords. For example, it can happen with single-sign-on user experiences, admin-level / user-level setups or some newspaper paywalls that show the extra information after you log in. The same situation can occur with applications that the password-vault program doesn’t understand like some content-creation tools that allow uploading of content to a Website.

When can they be handy

The password-vault program can be handy if you maintain many different passwords for many different applications and Web sites; and you want to log in to them without trying to recall different passwords for different sites.

They also come in to their own if you are using a computer setup that uses advanced authentication setups like like most business laptops and you want to exploit these features.

What needs to be done

An improved user experience for these programs could be provided in a few ways. For example, there could be a standard “hook” interface that allows a password vault to link with the login experience without it looking for “username-password” forms when catching or supplying user credentials. This can deal with the way paywall setups expose the full article on the same screen after you log in; or other difficult login environments. Similarly, the standard API could also work with desktop applications that require the user credentials.

Similarly, there could be support for a standard file format and public-key / public-key encryption setup to allow a “keyring” file to be used with different password-vault programs. This could also cater for transporting authentication parameters between the two different programs; and could allow the “keyring” to be used on different computers. It is more so if you offload the “keyring” file to a USB memory key that is on the same physical keyring as your house keys for example.

Conclusion

I would like to see further innovation occurring with “password-vault” programs, whether as third-party software or as part of an operating system, browser or desktop-security program. This is to encourage us to keep our computing and online experience very secure as it should be.

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