The purpose of this finding is to provide guidance for securely transmitting passwords on the World Wide Web. Clear text passwords are a serious security risk, though sometimes are acceptable. Digest authentication has significant advantages over clear text passwords, though other security issues arise. The use of an encrypted channel or key exchange is always more secure.
The W3C TAG members acknowledge that they are not security experts, however there is sufficient expertise to provide this level of secruity advice.
This finding is an editorial draft, not yet accepted by the TAG. This finding therefore does not have any official standing and does not represent the consensus of the Technical Architecture Group at the W3C.
2 Passwords in the clear
1) Secure transfers
1) Digest Authentication
2) SOAP Based transmissions
3 Passwords displayed in Browser
4 Password Alternatives
Security on the World Wide Web is an important issue which needs to be addressed, or mistrust of the Web will limit its growth potential. This finding describes the use of passwords on the World Wide Web and the need to keep them secure during display, temporary storage in cookies, and in transmission over the Web. Note that there are technologies other than passwords for enabling the transmission of secure informaton.
The keywords "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119 [ IETF RFC 2119]
This section addresses the issue of transmitting passwords in clear text over the World Wide Web. When a password is transmitted in clear text, it is vulnerable in many ways:
The HTTP specification specifically states that HTTP is not considered to be a secure method of user authentication (unless used in conjunction with some external secure system such as SSL).
It is estimated that between 1 and 2 percent of e-commerce transactions are related to fraud. As customers are becoming more 'net savvy', they are starting to examine web page types and are attempting to only use secure systems. Therefore, any organization that wishes to safeguard its customers' data should start with secure transfers of user login and password information.
Clear text passwords are a serious security risk, though sometimes are acceptable.
There are no scenarios where it is possible to transmit passwords in the clear without risk. Every scenario that involves possibly transmitting passwords in the clear can be redesigned for the desired functionality without a cleartext password transmission.
While it's not the purpose of this paper to do an exhaustive description of secure transfer methods on the Web, there are a few common methods used today which are easy to implement;
Digest Authentication acts as an extension to HTTP 1.0 and provides an authentication method that does not transmit the password over the network. Instead the password is treated as a secret input to a digest algorithm. The resulting digest is transmitted and verified by the server.
Digest authentication has significant advantages over clear text passwords, though other security issues arise.
The digest method is often not practicable and has known security weaknesses. The Digest method requires that both parties have access to the same initial secret value. For security of the passwords, many systems store passwords as a salted hash, and the result is that it is not possible to use such pre-existing passwords for computing the digest. For example, operating systems that store salted and hashed passwords cannot reuse those passwords for Digest Authentication. Passwords that are stored as a salted hash must also be salted and hashed by the user agent or client using the same salting and hashing algorithm, and the protocol for specifying the exact data and algorithm goes beyond the Digest Authentication specification. The Digest method is subject to dictionary attacks because a single session can be recorded and attacked offline. The Digest method is particularly vulnerable in circumstances where passwords are known to be of insufficient length and complexity to thwart such attacks. Short passwords or those using common words should not be used with digest authentication. Indeed, the sophistication and power of dictionary-based attacks continues to increase such that longer and more complex passwords are increasingly vulnerable to attack. Great care must therefore be taken using digest authentication, and it should be noted that few systems on the Web today require sufficiently strong passwords. The Digest method is also subject to man in the middle attacks because an intermediary can degrade the quality of service to basic authentication.
Given these weaknesses in Digest Authentication and password selection, users may erroneously believe the transmitted passwords are secure. Digest should only be used when the costs of more secure systems such as SSL/TLS do not justify the benefits and when strong passwords are encouraged or guaranteed.
SSL/TLS is a protocol developed for transmitting private channels via the Internet. SSL/TLS works by using a private key to encrypt data that is transferred over the SSL/TLS connection. Most browsers support SSL/TLS and most sites which require sensitive information such as credit card information use SSL/TLS today.
The use of an encrypted channel or key exchange is always more secure than cleartext passwords or Digest Authentication.
It is important to correctly use SSL/TLS. Any page that solicits sensitive information such as passwords must be transmitted using SSL/TLS to prevent an attacker from submitting an imitation page that does not use SSL/TLS.
WS-Security is typically used with SOAP based transmissions, but has been applied to the AtomPub protocol.
SOAP messages are often sent using HTTP and any SOAP message is subject to similar password security concerns. While SSL/TLS can be used to secure SOAP-based messages point to point, the issue can be more complex if SOAP intermediaries are used. If confidential information is to be sent as part of the SOAP package, publishers can use use SSL/TLS, XML Encryption, and WS-Security for sensitive data elements. Further information on security for SOAP messages can be found in WS-I Basic Security Profile [WSI] or on the OASIS Web Services Security TC home page [WSS].
HTML allows authors to create input forms. If a form field is a password, password masking SHOULD take place to protect the user from onlookers seeing what is being entered and stop anyone from later using the 'back' button to discover passwords.
<form name="form1" action="https://www.mydomain.com/myform.cgi" method="POST"> Enter Password : <input type="password" size="25"/> </form>
User agents SHOULD use password masking when passwords are displayed in an HTML form.
This Good Practice does not contain a MUST because there are a few scenarios where password masking is not required. One example is that the user may request that the password be displayed in the clear in order to check the password as it is being entered. Another example is the previous example of a password intended merely to stop web crawling and which consequently is not particularly sensitive. Such non-sensitive passwords may be displayed without masking in addition to being transmitted in clear text.
A browser should also ensure that password form fields are not stored in the browser cache.
A solution to sending username/password combinations to many different web sites is to use single sign-on or delegated authorization technology, such as SAML, OpenId and OAuth. Another solution is to use client certificate-based authentication. Finally, two-factor security is growing in popularlty. An example is security password token generators where a number or PIN that is known to the user is combined with a regularly random generated number by a hardware token as the password.
[WSI]: WS-I Basic Security Profile, WS-I. Available online as http://www.ws-i.org/Profiles/BasicSecurityProfile-1.0.html.