Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Offline Password Management System


In many companies the authentication management is quite easy to do. That is if they only have one IT team and simple network infrastructure. Just putting in one LDAP or AD server should do the trick, one would believe.
But the world is not always that easy. There are more complex and heterogenous environments, with multi-department/team organizations and environment segmentation, where having something like central authentication server is just not feasible.
Also for some applications or systems it might not be possible to use something like remote authentication service.
In these cases, local authentication is the only option. Which makes account/password management a bit complicated.
So let's think about such scenario, where there are lots of accounts/logins/passwords and some of them are shared others are personal and describe how such offline system could work.

Accounts and Systems

The most important task to do is to create a list of roles and systems, where these accounts (should) reside.
These systems can be anything from specific applications down to pin code for room access. As the goal is to keep track of any accounts, therefore even physical elements should be considered.
When it comes to types of accounts, there usually are two types:

Personal accounts

Personalized accounts are important part of change tracking function, auditing function and other security controls, so I expect many systems would have such accounts and tracking and maintaining such accounts can and should be done by the person owning them.

Shared accounts

Shared authentication is used in areas where only one account can have all the rights (root account) or service provider supplies only one account (support or administration account) or the account is connected with a role that is performed by whole team (monitoring or support account).
Another type of shared account is system accounts, where one application needs to authenticate to other (e.g. client(s)->server relationship).

Changing such accounts can be difficult, as the information has to be shared with all the people that are part of the owner group. It's not a good practice to send the password unencrypted to everybody in the group, and encrypting it with one shared phrase makes it difficult to send it to new group members or those who forgot the shared encryption phrase.

Password management concept

So in order to track these accounts, the solution should be able to identify and distribute the account data only to the users that need it.
To do that, there should be 3 lists (or tables) of information:
  • list of all the accounts (on network elements, OS, applications, databases, etc.) 
  • list of all the account owners (potential account holders, can also be systems or applications that need an account)
  • list of all groups with people as members (teams, people with the same role or responsibility, etc.)
List of all accounts with systems, where they reside, is useful for identification of all the places, where changes have to be performed if one account has to change. There shall be no password stored in this list (
List of all account owners, should contain their public keys and delivery method for encrypted passwords (protocol/email/storage/ whatever the user likes).
List of all groups links account owners with accounts, so for personal accounts it would be one2one link and for shared accounts it would be one to many. For any future functionality there also can be group of groups or one2half (2 people holding part of the password each).

So application should have or use these lists to manage the account operations that are usually done in a standard IT environment.

Day-to-Day Operations 

Let's see how day-to-day operations with such a solution would look like:

New account creation

  1. identify all the systems that need to have this account
  2. generate a password 
  3. set the password on the system(s)
  4. distribute the password to all the group members

Shared account membership change

Here the question is whether to choose optimal approach (and for new addition just use the same password, but encrypt it for the new owner), or secure approach (generate new password every time there is a change in the group list). With minimum overhead I think it's better to do the later (being a security engineer afterall):
  1. add or remove person in the group list
  2. generate new password for the account
  3. set the password on the system(s)
  4. distribute the password to all the group members

Password change

This task should be the same as the new account creation.
  1. identify all the systems that have this account
  2. generate new password for the account
  3. set the password on the system(s) identified
  4. distribute the password to all the group members

Account expiry/deletion

  1. identify all the systems where this account is used or shall be deleted from.
  2. remove it from the list
  3. delete or disable the account on all these systems

Available solutions

Although I didn't spend much time testing various multi-user password management applications, I found following worth investigating:

Of course, a solution that requires constant connectivity to a password server defeats the purpose intended, so the connectivity is only required to synchronize password database for the user.

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