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07 Oct 2009

Would you pay for a more secure GMail?

Earlier today I read a blog entry by Ben Metcalfe that really hit home. The entry is called “My GMail password scares me with its power,” and I’d like to say that he’s not the only one. Particularly in light of the widespread (and apparently quite successful) phishing attacks going around, it’s a good idea to think about how much of your life and personal information are stored behind that one password, and whether that password is really up to snuff.

Metcalf puts forward what I think is a very modest proposal, which I think boils down to two main points. Neither are trivial, but neither are either one a real stretch on technical grounds:

  1. Google ought to allow you to enforce some sort of privilege separation: rather than just having one password for everything, more sensitive services (GMail, Google Checkout, Search History) should be able to be configured to use a separate password. This would ensure that the cached password saved in the chat program you use at work couldn’t be used to log into your mail, or make purchases to the credit card associated with your Google Checkout account.

  2. Users who are security-conscious could buy a two-factor authentication token, like an RSA SecureID, to use with some or all Google services. This wouldn’t be mandatory and it wouldn’t be free – so it wouldn’t help the clueless or the broke – but it would let those people who are honestly concerned about security but who lack the ability to replicate Google’s services themselves (and, lets face it, just about nobody can replicate Google’s services at this point) to get that security on top of Google’s offerings.

Perhaps neither are economically feasible right now; too few users may care about security–and be willing to pay for it–to cover the cost that either would mean to Google to implement. But as users put more and more of their data in the hands of managed services like Google’s, and security breaches start having more serious consequences, the demand will come.

In the meantime, what’s a concerned user to do? The best thing you can do is to choose a more secure password. If you don’t mind potentially creating something that you can’t memorize, use a random-password generator and either write the results down, or store it in a ‘password keeper’ program that encrypts its data file with one (good!) master password. I take this latter approach, and use the open-source Password Safe on Windows and Linux, and Password Gorilla (which opens Password Safe database files) on Mac OS X. And, of course, take all the usual precautions against potential phishing attacks.

Until Google sees fit to improve on the one-username/one-password architecture for all its services, that’s about the best you can do.

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