Usability and security gurus agree that masked passwords should go

Out-Law News | 29 Jun 2009 | 2:48 pm | 2 min. read

Websites should stop masking passwords as users type because it does not improve security and makes websites harder to use, according to two of the technology world's leading thinkers.

Editor's note, 07/07/2009: Bruce Schneier has changed his mind. He now says that he was "probably wrong" to support Jakob Nielsen's view. See our more recent story.

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen and security expert Bruce Schneier have both said that websites should stop blanking out passwords as users type them in. They say that the practice inconveniences users with no security benefit at all.

Most websites that require passwords allow a user to see the login name as it is typed in but replace the password as it is type with dots or asterisks so that the password cannot be viewed either by another person looking at the screen or by the user.

"It's time to show most passwords in clear text as users type them," said Nielsen in a post on his website. "Providing feedback and visualizing the system's status have always been among the most basic usability principles. Showing undifferentiated bullets while users enter complex codes definitely fails to comply."

Nielsen is the web's most famous usability guru and campaigns for content and websites to conform to technical standards in order to be usable and accessible for all users, including disabled users using assistive technologies.

One of technology's most renowned security experts echoed Nielsen's concerns, and backed up Nielsen's assertion that password masking does nothing to improve security.

"Password masking has annoyed me for years," Schneier told OUT-LAW.COM. "Shoulder surfing is largely a phantom problem, and people know to be alert when others are nearby, but mistyping a long password happens all the time."

Nielsen said that research had shown that password masking causes problems for users. "Password masking has proven to be a particularly nasty usability problem in our testing of mobile devices, where typing is difficult and typos are common. But the problem exists for desktop users as well," he said.

Nielsen said that preventing users from seeing the passwords they type in causes two problems. "Users make more errors when they can't see what they're typing while filling in a form. They therefore feel less confident. This double degradation of the user experience means that people are more likely to give up and never log in to your site at all, leading to lost business," he said.

"The more uncertain users feel about typing passwords, the more likely they are to (a) employ overly simple passwords and/or (b) copy-paste passwords from a file on their computer. Both behaviors lead to a true loss of security," he said.

Schneier agreed that masking passwords was likely to result in a weakening of security. "I'm sure people choose shorter and easier to type password when their typing is masked, resulting in less security overall," he said.

Nielsen said that sites usually blank out type-in passwords out of force of habit rather than reason. "Password masking has become common for no reasons other than (a) it's easy to do, and (b) it was the default in the web's early days," he said.

Nielsen acknowledged that shoulder surfing is a risk in some environments, such as internet cafés. "It's therefore worth offering them a checkbox to have their passwords masked; for high-risk applications, such as bank accounts, you might even check this box by default," he suggests. "In cases where there's a tension between security and usability, sometimes security should win."

Editor's note, 06/07/2009: We have had a lot of feedback from people who disagreed with this advice.

One reader noted: "The iPhone has a good method for entering passwords, it shows the last character you typed then replaces it by * when you type the next character. Doesn't cut down on the risk of shoulder surfing but means they would have to be watching you the whole time."

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