Ask the Expert

Recovering lost passwords

How do you recommend an ASP enable customers to recover lost passwords? Letting them request their password by e-mail is vulnerable to sniffing. Letting them request their password by phone with "safeword" is vulnerable to social engineering. Any sage advice?

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The eternal usability/security tension. The easiest is the "mother's maiden name" level of security. . . which is fairly poor security for many applications, but fine for very low risk ones.

In general, not knowing anything else, I suggest a moving scale:

High security -- No recovery. User has to re-register.

Medium security -- User encrypts passphrase on floppy keyed for local security officer. Stores in user's desk. Goes to security officer to decrypt when forgets. Floppy can be examined to ensure owned by individual.

Low security -- Combination of info gleaned during registration on secure connection (any two randomly asked questions: favorite pet's name, last four digits of SSN, mother's maiden name, etc.). Can be over SSL connection.

This was first published in April 2001

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