In October 2016, UCL’s Information Services Division (ISD) implemented a new password policy to encourage users to choose stronger passwords. The policy links password lifetime (the time before the password expires) to password strength: The stronger the password, the longer the lifetime.
We (Ingolf Becker, Simon Parkin and M. Angela Sasse) decided to collaborate with the Information Services Division to study the effect of this policy change, and the results were published at USENIX Security this week. We find that users appreciate the choice and respond to the policy by choosing stronger passwords when changing passwords. Even after 16 months the mean password lifetime at UCL continues to increase, yet stronger passwords also lead to more password resets.
The new policy
In the new policy, passwords with Shannon Information Entropy of 50 bits receive a lifetime of 100 days, and passwords with 120 bits receive a lifetime of 350 days:
Additionally, the new policy penalises the lifetime of passwords containing words from a large dictionary.
Users play the game
We analysed the password lifetime – what we will refer to from here on in as the ‘password strength’ – of all password change and reset events of all pseudonymised users at UCL. The following figure shows the mean password expiration of all users over time, smoothed by 31-day moving averages:
A small drop in password strength was observed between November ’16 and February ’17, as users were moved on to and generally became accustomed to the new system; the kinds of passwords they would have been used to using were at that point not getting them as many days as before (hence the drop). After February ’17, the mean strength increases from 145 days to 170 days in 12 months – an increase of 6.9 bits of entropy. This strongly suggests that users have generally adapted slowly to the new password policy, and eventually make use of the relatively new ability to increase password lifetime by expanding and strengthening their passwords.
Terms and Conditions (T&C) are long, convoluted, and are very rarely actually read by customers. Yet when customers are subject to fraud, the content of the T&Cs, along with national regulations, matter. The ability to revoke fraudulent payments and reimburse victims of fraud is one of the main selling points of traditional payment systems, but to be reimbursed a fraud victim may need to demonstrate that they have followed security practices set out in their contract with the bank.
Security advice in banking terms and conditions vary greatly across the world. Our study’s scope included Europe (Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, and the United Kingdom), the United States, Africa (Algeria, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa), the Middle East (Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Yemen), and East Asia (Singapore). Out of 30 banks’ terms and conditions studied, 26 give more or less specific advice on how you may store your PIN. The advice varies from “Never writing the Customer’s password or security details down in a way that someone else could easily understand” (Arab Banking Corp, Algeria), “If the Customer makes a written record of any PIN Code or security procedure, the Customer must make reasonable effort to disguise it and must not keep it with the card for which it is to be used” (National Bank of Kenya) to “any record of the PIN is kept separate from the card and in a safe place” (Nedbank, South Africa).
Half of the T&Cs studied give advice on choosing and changing one’s PIN. Some banks ask customers to immediately choose a new PIN when receiving a PIN from the bank, others don’t include any provision for customers to change their PIN. Some banks give specific advice on how to choose a PIN:
When selecting a substitute ATM-PIN, the Customer shall refrain from selecting any series of consecutive or same or similar numbers or any series of numbers which may easily be ascertainable or identifiable with the Customer…
Only 5 banks give specific advice about whether you are allowed to re-use your PIN on other payment cards or elsewhere. There is also disagreement about what to do with the PIN advice slip, with 7 banks asking the customer to destroy it.
Some banks also include advice on Internet security. In the UK, HSBC for example demands that customers
always access Internet banking by typing the address into the web browser and use antivirus, antispyware and a personal firewall. If accessing Internet banking from a computer connected to a LAN or a public Internet access device or access point, they must first ensure that nobody else can observe, copy or access their account. They cannot use any software, such as browsers or password managers, to record passwords or other security details, apart from a service provided by the bank. Finally, all security measures recommended by the manufacturer of the device being used to access Internet banking must be followed, such as using a PIN to access a mobile device.
Over half of banks tell customers to use firewalls and anti-virus software. Some even recommend specific commercial software, or tell customers how to find some:
It is also possible to obtain free anti-virus protection. A search for `free anti-virus’ on Google will provide a list of the most popular.
In the second part of our paper, we investigate the customers’ perception of banking T&Cs in three countries: Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom. We present the participants with 2 real-life scenarios where individuals are subject to fraud, and ask them to decide on the outcome. We then present the participants with sections of T&Cs representative for their country and ask them then to re-evaluate the outcome of the two scenarios.
Scenario 1: Card Loss
Scenario 1: Card Loss after T&Cs
Scenario 2: Phishing
Scenario 2: Phishing after T&Cs
The table above lists the percentage of participants that say that the money should be returned for each of the scenarios. We find that in all but one case, the participants are more likely to have the protagonist reimbursed after reading the terms and conditions. This is noteworthy – our participants are generally reassured by what they read in the T&Cs.
Further, we assess the participants’ comprehension of the T&Cs. Only 35% of participants fully understand the sections, but the regional variations are large: 45% of participants in the US fully understanding the T&Cs but only 22% do so in Germany. This may indeed be related to the differences in consumer protection laws between the countries: In the US, Federal regulations give consumers much stronger protections. In Germany and the UK (and indeed, throughout Europe under the EU’s Payment Service Directive), whether a victim of fraud is reimbursed depends on if he/she has been grossly negligent – a term that is not clearly defined and confused our participants throughout.