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The Trouble with Politicians Sharing Passwords

Yesterday I had a bunch of people point me at a tweet from a politician in the UK named Nadine Dorries. As it turns out, some folks were rather alarmed about her position on sharing what we would normally consider to be a secret. In this case, that secret is her password and, well, just read it:

For context, the back story to this is that another British pollie (Damian Green) is presently in hot water for allegedly accessing porn on his gov PC and Nadine is implying it could have been someone else on his PC using his identity. I read this while wandering around in LA on my way home from sitting in front of US Congress and explaining security principles to a government so it felt like a timely opportunity to share my own view on the matter:

And that would have pretty much been the end of it... but the topic kept coming up. More and more people pointed me to Nadine's tweet and the BBC also picked it up and quoted me. As I dug into her tweets (and those supporting her) while waiting for my bags back home in Australia, it became apparent this was becoming somewhat of a larger issue. I wanted to lay things out in a more cohesive fashion than tweets permit, which brings us to this post.

Other People Sharing Credentials

To be fair to Nadine, she's certainly not the only one handing her password out to other people. Reading through hundreds of tweets on the matter, there's a defence of "yeah but others do it too":

Firstly, that's not something I'd advise announcing in public because as you'll see a little later, admitting to that practice could have some rather severe consequences.

Secondly, the premise of justifying a bad practice purely on the basis of it being common is extremely worrying. It's normalising a behaviour that we should be actively working towards turning around. Particularly when we're talking about public figures in positions of influence, we need to see leadership around infosec, not acknowledgement that elected representatives are consciously exercising poor password hygiene.

What's the Problem Credential Sharing is Solving?

Let's start here because it's important to acknowledge that there's a reason Nadine (and others) are deliberately sharing their passwords with other people. If we can't get to grips with the root cause then we're not going to be able to effectively talk about the solutions.

Reading through the trove of tweets that followed, Nadine's challenge appears to be handling large volumes of email:

Let's be sympathetic to the challenge here - answering 300 emails a day would be a mammoth task and the principle of sourcing help from staffers is a perfectly reasonable one. Her approach to password sharing may simply be evidence of humans working around technology constraints:

I totally agree with the premise of technology needing to meet business requirements so let's take a look at how it does precisely that.

Understanding Delegated Access

As many people pointed out, there are indeed technology solutions available to solve this problem:

The concept of delegation hinges on someone else being able to perform duties on your behalf. How this is done depends on the technology of choice, for example in the Microsoft world there are a couple of ways to grant other people access. Firstly, you can share folders such that another party can access your mail. Now that's not strictly delegation (they can't act on your behalf), but it addresses use cases where someone else may need to access your messages (i.e. a personal assistant).

In order to truly delegate access to someone else, it only takes a few clicks:

Delegate access in Outlook

It's certainly not a concept unique to Microsoft either, it's actually a very well-established technology pattern to address precisely the scenario Nadine outlined above.

Other Collaborative Solutions

Let's not limit this discussion to just providing access to email though, there were other scenarios raised which may cause people to behave in a similar way to Nadine:

I really hope the suggestion of a security camera was tongue in cheek, although admittedly I did chuckle at the irony of this being a potential solution to regain the ability to identify users after consciously circumventing security controls!

But in answer to Picaro's question, yes, I have worked with a group of people all editing a document under separate identities. Products like SharePoint are designed to do precisely that and by their very nature are collaboration tools. If the logistics of this sounds confusing, check out the guidance around collaborating on Word documents with real-time co-authoring. Pictures speak a thousand words here:

444e4d41-c17e-4109-adc6-d715ebf6c299

51369e6d-c212-47f6-87e3-3d342d948956

8687d69e-a320-4f84-865d-51ca2a93252e

But again, this is far from being just a Microsoft construct and many readers here would have used Google Docs in the past which is also excellent for working collaboratively on content under unique identities. This is far from an unsolved technology problem. Indeed, the entire premise of many people within an organisation requiring access to common resources is an age-old requirement which has been solved many different ways by many different companies. There's certainly no lack of solutions here.

Identity, Accountability and Plausible Deniability

One of the constant themes that came back to me via Twitter was "plausible deniability":

Many others also suggested precisely this in replies to Nadine so let's look at exactly what's meant by the term:

Plausible deniability is the ability of people (typically senior officials in a formal or informal chain of command) to deny knowledge of or responsibility for any damnable actions committed by others in an organizational hierarchy because of a lack of evidence that can confirm their participation, even if they were personally involved in or at least willfully ignorant of the actions

The assertion here is that someone in her position could potentially say "something bad happened under my account but because multiple people use it, maybe it was someone else". The thing is, this is precisely the antithesis of identity and accountability and if this is actually a desirable state, then frankly there's much bigger problems at hand.

The situation with Damian Green trying to explain his way out of porn being on his machine perfectly illustrates the problem. The aforementioned BBC article contains a video where he says:

It is the truth that I didn't download or look at pornography on my computer

Yet - allegedly - pornography was found on his machine. The plausible deniability Nadine alludes to in her tweet is that how do you know it was him that downloaded it? I mean if many different people have the ability to operate under Damian's identity, that porn could have been downloaded by any number of people, right? Giving someone else access to your account leaves the door open to shirking responsibility when things go wrong.

The Ramifications of Providing Credentials to Other People

Here's an argument I've heard many times in the past:

The assertion here is that other people are already in positions of trust and as such, excessive permissions aren't a problem as you can rely on them to do the right thing. There are two fundamental flaws with this:

Firstly, there are plenty of people in positions of trust who haven't done the right thing. The most impactful example of this is Edward Snowden persuading NSA colleagues to provide their credentials to him. Now regardless of whether you do or don't support what Ed then did with those credentials, the point is that he was in a position where those around him trusted him - he had a security pass! You'll find many other examples ranging from system admins going rogue to insiders pilfering corporate documents for profit to the guy who outsourced his job to China so he could watch cat videos. Just because you trust them isn't sufficient reason to give them any more rights than they require to do their job.

Secondly, there are plenty of people who unwittingly put an organisation at risk due to having rights to things they simply don't need. I often hear an anecdote from a friend of mine in the industry where a manager he once knew demanded the same access rights as his subordinates because "I can tell them what to do anyway". That all unravelled in spectacular style when his teenage son jumped onto his machine one day and nuked a bunch of resources totally outside the scope of what the manager ever actually needed. We call the antidote for this the principle of least privilege and those inadvertent risks range from the example above to someone being infected with malware to phishing attacks. There's not necessary malice involved on behalf of the person with "a security pass", but the unnecessary trust placed in them heightens the risk.

In fact, social engineering is especially concerning in an environment where the sharing of credentials is the norm. When you condition people to treating secrets as no longer being secret but rather something you share with someone else that can establish sufficient trust, you open up a Pandora's box of possible problems because creating a veneer of authenticity in order to gain trust is precisely what phishers are so good at! Imagine an intern (per Nadine's original tweet) being asked for a password by someone posing as the boss in an environment where requesting this is the norm. You can see the problem.

In many organisations, there are very clear conditions of use set out for access to information systems that explicitly prohibit credential sharing. You know, organisations like the British Parliament:

Not sharing passwords

This is from the Advice for Members and their staff document on the UK Parliament Website and at least to my eyes, that seems like pretty explicit advice. Just in case it's not entirely clear, there's also the House of Commons Staff Handbook on Information Security Responsibilities:

House of Commons Staff Handbook

There are no accompanying caveats of "but it's alright if it makes things more convenient"! We all know this, not just because you might happen to occasionally read this blog but because we're constantly bombarded with this guidance both online and in the workplace:

Passwords are like toothbrushes

Lock your lips

We don't want to know

Oftentimes, the ramifications of deliberately circumventing security controls designed to protect the organisation can be severe:

If anyone knows what the possible repercussions for a member of parliament violating these policies are, do chime in via the comments section below.

Summary

I'm conscious the tweet that sparked this debate was made on a Saturday evening and for all I know, it could have been an off-handed comment after a bottle of chardonnay while kicking back on the couch. I also appreciate that for non-tech people this may have seemed like a perfectly reasonable approach at the time. A chorus of voices have now set her straight so I'm inclined to put more personal judgement on what happens next as opposed to what might have been nothing more than an uninformed casual comment.

But we do need to call out credential sharing in this fashion for what it is and it's precisely what I highlighted in that original tweet - lack of education. The Register piece I linked to earlier on quoted one MP as saying the following and it's hard not to agree with it in this case:

Most MPs have that fatal combination of arrogance, entitlement and ignorance, which mean they don't think codes of practice are for them

It's alarming to read that Nadine believes criticism of her approach is due to her gender because if ever there was a construct that's entirely gender-unbiased, it's access controls! Giving other people your credentials in a situation such as hers is a bad idea regardless of gender, race, sexuality and any other personal attribute someone may feel discriminated by.

With all of that said, if you're working in an environment where security controls are making it hard for you to do the very job you're employed to do, reach out to your IT department. In many cases there'll be solutions precisely like the delegated access explained above. It's highly likely that in Nadine's case, she can have her cake and eat it too in terms of providing staffers access to information and not breaking fundamental infosec principles.

The great irony of the debates justifying credential sharing is that they were sparked by someone attempting to claim innocence with those supporting him saying "well, it could have been someone else using his credentials"! This is precisely why this is problem! Fortunately, this whole thing was sparked by something as benign as looking at porn and before anyone jumps up and down and says that's actually a serious violation, when you consider the sorts of activities we task those in parliament with, you can see how behaviour under someone's identity we can't attribute back to them could be far, far more serious.

Update

The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) has picked up on politicians sharing their passwords and tweeted about it here:

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) also has some excellent practical guidance about simplifying your approach to passwords which is a good read if it all feels too hard.

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Hi, I'm Troy Hunt, I write this blog, create courses for Pluralsight and am a Microsoft Regional Director and MVP who travels the world speaking at events and training technology professionals