dennisgorelik: (Default)
When developing a user-facing application, prioritization of security versus usability - requires delicate balancing.

Here are some examples:

1) When postjobfree emails to a user account recovery link, we want to make that the link is usable, and allow user to use that link for a day (24 hours).
In some scenarios such account recovery link could be usable for the user even after 24 hours. But such a long window for taking over an account based on a single link would be making postjobfree.com account less secure (what if an attacker get an access to an old "account recovery" link?).

2) When user opens that account recovery link, PostJobFree allows user to set a new password, and it also autologins user to that account.
But what if user opens the same link for the second time: should PostJobFree allow user to change account password and autologin again or not?
From security perspective it is safer to expire such a link immediately after user opened the link.
From usability perspective it is better to allow that link to work for the second time, because user may accidentally open that "account recovery" link twice. Or an antivirus program may pre-open email link before user opens it.
In order to balance these security and usability demands, we decided to allow account recovery link to work for 1 hour after it was already used (unused account recovery link can be used for up to 24 hours).

3) What if user changed password on his account: should we allow old account recovery links to work or not?



Here is a typical "security" scenario:
User account owner found that an attacker (or a former employee) has an access to the account. So the account owner changes the password and expects that the attacker would not have an access to the account anymore. But if the attacker still has an old account recovery link - he can still autologin.
So, from security perspective, we should immediately expire all "account recovery" links that were sent before password change.
However there is an important "usability" scenario too:
- User posts a job, which creates a new account for the user.
- PostJobFree emails "confirm email" link to the user:
===============
From: PostJobFree <noreply@postjobfree.com>
To: testuser@gmail.com
Subject: Confirm your PostJobFree registration

===============

("Confirm email" link functions similar to "account recovery" link).
- While waiting for that "confirm email" link to arrive in the email inbox, user sets up a password on that new account (as a part of a new account setup process).
- Then user opens "confirm email" link.
If, according to security demands, "password change" in the previous step expired such "confirm email" link, then an important piece of usability is lost: user cannot immediately confirm that email is functioning, and has to request another "confirm email" link.
So, how do we balance these contradictory demands between security and usability in this case?
The best approach seems to be to prioritize usability in cases when user sets up a new account, but prioritize security when user changes password on already established account.
So if user changed password while going through initial account setup wizard - then keep previously sent links functioning. But if user already had password set, and now decided to change the password again - then expire all past "account recovery", "confirm email" and "change email" links immediately.
Such granular balancing between security and usability allows to deliver good security to the users who care about security of their account (users who change their account passwords manually -- such users are a minority), but still deliver a good usability to the vast majority of users who setup their password only if they are nudged by the account setup wizard.

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dennisgorelik: (Default)
Dennis Gorelik

July 2017

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