The Vanilla Password Reflex, or libraries and security education by example

At the first face-to-face meeting of the LITA Patron Privacy Technologies Interest Group at Midwinter, one of the attendees mentioned that they had sent out an RFP last year for library databases. One of the questions on the RFP asked how user passwords were stored — and a number of vendors responded that their systems stored passwords in plain text.

Here’s what I tweeted about that, and here is Dorothea Salo’s reply:

This is a repeatable response, by the way — much like the way a hammer strike to the patellar ligament instigates a reflexive kick, mention of plain-text password storage will trigger an instinctual wail from programmers, sysadmins, and privacy and security geeks of all stripes.

Call it the Vanilla Password Reflex?

I’m not suggesting that you should whisper “plain text passwords” into the ear of your favorite system designer, but if you are the sort to indulge in low and base amusements…

A recent blog post by Eric Hellman discusses the problems with storing passwords in plain text in detail. The upshot is that it’s bad practice — if a system’s password list is somehow leaked, and if the passwords are stored in plain text, it’s trivially easy for a cracker to use those passwords to get into all sorts of mischief.

This matters, even “just” for library reference databases. If we take the right to reader privacy seriously, it has to extend to the databases offered by the library — particularly since many of them have features to store citations and search results in a user’s account.

As Eric mentions, the common solution is to use a one-way cryptographic hash function to transform the user’s password into a bunch of gobbledegook.

For example, “p@ssw05d” might be stored as the following hash:


To make it more secure, I might add some random salt and end up with the following salted hash:


To log in, the user has to prove that they know the password by supplying it, but rather than compare the password directly, the result of the one-way function applied to the password is compared with the stored hash.

How is this more secure? If a hacker gets the list of password hashes, they won’t be able to deduce the passwords, assuming that the hash function is good enough. What counts as good enough? Well, relatively few programmers are experts in cryptography, but suffice it to say that there does exist a consensus on techniques for managing passwords and authentication.

The idea of one-way functions to encrypt passwords is not new; in fact, it dates back to the 1960s. Nowadays, any programmer who wants to be considered a professional really has no excuse for writing a system that stores passwords in plain text.

Back to the “Vanilla Password Reflex”. It is, of course, not actually a reflex in the sense of an instinctual response to a stimulus — programmers and the like get taught, one way or another, about why storing plain text passwords is a bad idea.

Where does this put the public services librarian? Particularly the one who has no particular reason to be well versed in security issues?

At one level, it just changes the script. If a system is well-designed, if a user asks what their password is, it should be impossible to get an answer to the question. How to respond to a patron who informs you that they’ve forgotten their password? Let them know that you can change it for them. If they respond by wondering why you can’t just tell them, if they’re actually interested in the answer, tell them about one-way functions — or just blame the computer, that’s fine too if time is short.

However, libraries and librarians can have a broader role in educating patrons about online security and privacy practices: leading by example. If we insist that the online services we recommend follow good security design; if we use HTTPS appropriately; if we show that we’re serious about protecting reader privacy, it can only buttress programming that the library may offer about (say) using password managers or avoiding phishing and other scams.

There’s also a direct practical benefit: human nature being what it is, many people use the same password for everything. If you crack an ILS’s password list, you’ve undoubtedly obtained a non-negligible set of people’s online banking passwords.

I’ll end this with a few questions. Many public services librarians have found themselves, like it or not, in the role of providing technical support for e-readers, smartphones, and laptops. How often does online security come up during such interactions? How often to patrons come to the library seeking help against the online bestiary of spammers, phishers, and worse? What works in discussing online security with patrons, who of course can be found at all levels of computer savvy? And what doesn’t?

I invite discussion — not just in the comments section, but also on the mailing list of the Patron Privacy IG.

CC BY-SA 4.0 The Vanilla Password Reflex, or libraries and security education by example by Galen Charlton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.