Lazy Password Storage

When you run an app on your Mac that connects to a secure web service, how confident are you that the password will be treated with care, and protected from prying eyes?

As a rule, Mac developers are pretty responsible about storing passwords and other private data in the OS X system keychain but, of course, there are exceptions.

I found a handy trick for uncovering passwords stored insecurely by applications directly to their preferences storage. The trick takes advantage of a cool functionality of the OS X “defaults” command line tool, which you can run from the “Terminal” app:

'defaults' [-currentHost | -host ] followed by one of the following:
  find <word>     lists all entries containing word

How convenient: a simple command line tool to search the entirety of all the preferences stored by all of your apps. So, a good first step would be to simply search for “password”:

defaults find password

On my Mac, this yields an overwhelming number of matches that includes a lot of false positives such as, for example, the preferences pertaining to 1Password, preferences pertaining to apps’ password dialog windows, and other innocuous uses of the term.

It occurred to me that most developers storing passwords insecurely in preferences would probably store the value either under the key “password,” or some variation such as “twitterPassword”. So I tweaked the command line to try to filter out these results. The “defaults find” command doesn’t take any options, but I can winnow the results using grep:

defaults find password | grep -i -E "password\"? ="

This grep invocation searches for case insensitive matches for “password”, optionally followed by a quotation mark, then a space and an equal sign. In other words, examples where a key that ends in “password” is being assigned a value.

This actually did reveal some problematic password storage on my Mac, but the grep is so good at filtering out the results, I can’t see which app to blame. I need to match ALL the lines that pinpoint the app, and all the lines that looks like they store a value into a password. Add an | (or) case to the grep expression to match for the tell-tale signs of the lines that summarize findings per-app:

defaults find password | grep -i -E "password\"? =|keys in domain"

Here I find a neat summary of potentially problematic password storages. Some of them remain false positives, but the list is now small enough to easily interpret. Any example where the app is something I plan to use again, I’ll be in touch with the developer to encourage them to improve the password storage security. Any example where the app is nothing I’ll ever run again?

defaults delete com.example.lazyapp

And the insecurely stored password is obliterated from my preferences.

Obviously this trick won’t match all the careless password storage that apps on your Mac may be committing, but I suspect it will root out a good number of them. Experiment with the grep commands to filter out based on different, less restrictive matches. You might also have some luck searching for examples of apps that store other sensitive information such as credit card numbers, secret questions and answers, etc.