Comprehensive Review of Password Managers: Security Algorithms and Computational Resilience

Comprehensive Review of Password Managers: Security Algorithms and Computational Resilience
Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

In the digital age, the security of personal and organizational data is paramount, and password managers have become essential tools in safeguarding this information. As cyber threats evolve, the need for robust security algorithms that can withstand brute-force attacks, quantum computing advances, and sophisticated password cracking tools is more critical than ever. This article delves into the security mechanisms of leading password managers—Psono, Bitwarden, Passbolt, 1Password, LastPass, and Keeper—focusing on their security algorithms, computational strength, and resistance to various password cracking methods.

The analysis will explore the cryptographic principles employed by these password managers, such as the industry-standard AES-256 encryption, and the unique approaches some take, like Psono's use of Curve25519, Salsa20, Poly1305 and Scrypt. We will assess the computational strength of these algorithms and their ability to resist brute-force attacks, considering the potential challenges posed by quantum computing—a concern highlighted by recent NIST efforts to standardize quantum-resistant encryption algorithms.

Furthermore, the report will examine the password managers' features, such as end-to-end encryption, zero-knowledge architecture, and multi-factor authentication, which contribute to their overall security posture. By comparing these password managers, we aim to provide a comprehensive understanding of their capabilities and limitations, offering valuable insights for individuals and organizations in their quest for optimal cybersecurity solutions. The landscape of digital security continues to shift, making the evaluation of these tools not just timely but imperative for the protection of sensitive data in an increasingly interconnected world.

Overview of Password Managers and Their Importance in Cybersecurity

Security Algorithms and Encryption Standards

Password managers such as Psono, Bitwarden, Passbolt, 1Password, LastPass, and Keeper utilize advanced encryption algorithms to secure user data. The most common encryption standard among these tools is AES-256, which is considered military-grade encryption. For instance, Bitwarden (Bitwarden Security) uses AES-256 bit encryption along with PBKDF2 SHA-256 to protect the vault data, while 1Password (1Password Security) employs a similar AES-256 encryption combined with a Secret Key for additional security.

Psono (Psono Security) relies on Curve25519, Salsa20/ChaCha20 and Scrypt instead of PBKDF2 used by most others. Its a much faster and arguably more secure. It's encryption at rest uses Salsa20 with Poly1305 MAC to further strengthen its overall security. They are not following the rest of the vendors when it comes to algorithm selection. Passbolt (Passbolt Security) uses OpenPGP, a public-key cryptography standard, to secure passwords, which is different from the symmetric key approach used by AES-256.

LastPass (LastPass Security) has traditionally used AES-256 bit encryption, but after a security incident in 2022, many questions have been raised about its encryption practices. It goes without saying IMO that LastPass is a company that should not be trusted with your most sensitive passwords and secrets at this point! Keeper (Keeper Security), on the other hand, emphasizes its zero-knowledge security model and also uses AES-256 bit encryption to secure data.

My personal picks for Open Source password managers are Psono and Bitwarden, while my recommendations for commercial options would have to be 1Password and Keeper!

Computational Strength and Resistance to Brute-Force Attacks

The computational strength of the encryption algorithms used by password managers is measured by their ability to withstand brute-force attacks. AES-256 bit encryption is theoretically resistant to brute-force attacks due to the vast number of possible combinations. For example, Bitwarden's choice to default to 600,001 password iterations (Bitwarden vs LastPass) enhances resistance to such attacks by increasing the computational time required to test each possible key. LastPass had many users report its iterations were stuck at a very low levels and was never caught until after the breach. This was a shock to many, and left many LastPass users concerned when the data was stolen.

1Password's use of a Secret Key in addition to the master password increases the entropy, making brute-force attacks even more impractical. Keeper's zero-knowledge model means that even Keeper itself cannot access the user's stored passwords, which adds another layer of security against brute-force attempts.

Quantum Computing Challenges

Quantum computing presents a potential threat to current encryption standards. However, as of 2024, quantum computers are not yet capable of breaking AES-256 bit encryption. Security experts are already preparing for post-quantum cryptography to ensure long-term resilience against quantum threats (Quantum Computing and Encryption).

Password managers will need to adopt quantum-resistant algorithms as they become standardized by organizations like NIST. Currently, none of the reviewed password managers have implemented post-quantum cryptographic algorithms, but they are expected to transition as the threat becomes more imminent.

Vulnerability to Password Cracking Methods

Password managers are designed to protect against various password cracking methods, including dictionary attacks, rainbow tables, and more sophisticated techniques. The use of strong, unique passwords generated by these managers, combined with their encryption methods, makes it difficult for attackers to gain access to stored credentials.

However, no system is entirely foolproof. Users must remain vigilant against phishing attacks and malware that can compromise even the strongest passwords. For example, LastPass's security incident in 2022 compromised user data, including encrypted passwords, highlighting the importance of not only strong encryption but also comprehensive security practices (LastPass Security Incident). This is where I have always had a concern up until recently. PBKDF2 is used a lot more, but its lower than recommended iteration setups for many password managers was not to best practices. Many have since upped those iteration counts significantly.

Comparative Review of Password Managers

When comparing the specified password managers, it is evident that they all prioritize strong encryption and security features. Bitwarden stands out for its open-source model and affordability, while 1Password is noted for its user-friendly design and additional security features like breach monitoring and secure password sharing (1Password vs Bitwarden).

Passbolt's use of OpenPGP sets it apart, offering a different approach to encryption, while Psono provides flexibility and uniqueness among the rest in key derivation functions. Keeper's emphasis on zero-knowledge security and strong encryption makes it a formidable option for users concerned about brute-force attacks.

Finally, while all these password managers offer robust security algorithms and encryption, their resistance to brute-force attacks and readiness for quantum computing challenges vary. Users should consider their specific needs and the potential risks when choosing a password manager.

Analysis of Encryption Algorithms Used by Password Managers

Encryption Algorithms and Their Computational Strength

Password managers like Psono, Bitwarden, Passbolt, 1Password, LastPass, and Keeper utilize various encryption algorithms to secure user data. The most common among these is the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) with a 256-bit key size. AES-256 is considered the gold standard for encryption and is used by the US government for securing classified information. It has a computational strength that is currently unfeasible to break with brute-force attacks using classical computing methods. Although newer hardware and methods are threatening that impossibility.

For instance, Bitwarden and 1Password (Restore Privacy) both employ AES-256 encryption to protect user data at rest and in transit. Keeper also uses AES-256 encryption but adds another layer by encrypting data at both the record and device levels. This approach enhances security by ensuring that each piece of data has a unique encryption key, making it more resistant to attacks.

Passbolt, on the other hand, uses OpenPGP, a non-proprietary protocol for encrypting email communication that has been adapted for password management. OpenPGP uses a combination of symmetric-key cryptography and public-key cryptography, providing a strong level of security and computational strength (Passbolt Blog).

Resistance to Brute-Force Attacks

The resistance of password managers to brute-force attacks largely depends on the encryption algorithm used and the implementation of additional security features. AES-256, for example, is resistant to brute-force attacks due to the sheer number of possible keys. It is estimated that attempting to crack AES-256 by brute force would take billions of years with current technology. High end AI/GPU and Quantum computing advances are threatening to reduce that time significantly.

Password managers also implement rate limiting, account lockout mechanisms, and other security measures to prevent multiple failed attempts, further mitigating the risk of brute-force attacks. Furthermore having other technologies in front of the web server application such as reverse proxies, WAF's and other firewall technologies add to the number of layers that stand in the way of breaching security.

Quantum Computing Challenges

Quantum computing presents a theoretical threat at present to current encryption standards, including AES-256. Quantum computers, once they reach sufficient maturity, could potentially use algorithms like Shor's algorithm to break public-key cryptography much faster than classical computers. However, symmetric-key algorithms like AES are considered to be more resistant to quantum attacks. To maintain a quantum-resistant stance, password managers may need to adopt post-quantum cryptographic algorithms in the future.

Many of these Password Managers have acknowledged the potential threat posed by quantum computing and has suggested transitioning to post-quantum primitives when feasible and at the right time.

Vulnerability to Password Cracking Tools

Password managers are designed to be resistant to password cracking tools by using strong encryption algorithms and implementing security best practices. However, vulnerabilities can still be found in software implementations, which is why regular security audits and updates are crucial. This is an industry where security standards MUST be higher than any other industry, as these platforms literally hold all the keys to the kingdom.

For instance, Passbolt has undergone security assessments by Cure53, which have helped identify and address potential vulnerabilities (Passbolt Blog). Similarly, Bitwarden has achieved SOC 2 and SOC 3 certifications, demonstrating its commitment to security and encryption (Restore Privacy). While Psono is extremely open with its code auditing and transparency. While confident enough to post the actual report online for complete transparency.

Psono Security Audit Report

Comparative Review of Encryption Strength

When comparing the encryption strength of the mentioned password managers, it is clear that they all prioritize strong encryption standards like AES-256 and OpenPGP. The computational strength of these algorithms makes them resistant to brute-force attacks with current technology. Keeper's approach to encrypt data at multiple levels provides an additional security layer that may offer enhanced protection against cracking tools.

As the threat landscape evolves, password managers must continue to adapt their encryption methods to maintain security against emerging threats, including those posed by quantum computing. Regular security audits and transparent communication with users about security practices are essential for maintaining trust and ensuring the protection of sensitive data.

Password Managers and Quantum Computing: Assessing the Resistance

Quantum Computing Threat to Password Managers

Quantum computing represents a significant leap in computational capability, with the potential to break many of the cryptographic algorithms currently in use. Password managers, which rely on these algorithms to secure user data, are at risk if their encryption methods are not quantum-resistant. The threat is not immediate, but with advancements in quantum technology, it is a looming concern for cybersecurity experts. (Scientific American)

Current Cryptographic Standards in Password Managers

Most password managers, including Bitwarden, Passbolt, 1Password, LastPass, and Keeper, use Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) with key sizes of 256 bits for encrypting stored data. AES is considered secure against classical computing attacks and is expected to be resistant to quantum attacks due to its symmetric nature. However, the key exchange mechanisms, often based on RSA or ECC, are vulnerable to quantum attacks. (NIST)

Psono is the odd man out, with their choice of Curve25519, Salsa20 and Scrypt. While almost all other password managers in existence mainly use PBKDF2 for their key derivative functions. PBKDF2 is easier to crack than Scrypt which Psono uses. The only thing better or more recommended than Scrypt from multiple sources I have read, is Argon2.

Quantum-Resistant Algorithms and Password Managers

In response to the quantum threat, NIST has initiated a process to standardize quantum-resistant cryptographic algorithms. Password managers will need to adopt these new standards to ensure long-term security. As of now, there is no widespread implementation of these post-quantum algorithms in mainstream password managers, but the transition is expected as the standards become finalized. (NIST)

Bitwarden and Quantum Resistance

Bitwarden is an open-source password manager that has expressed interest in moving towards quantum-resistant encryption algorithms. The community discussions suggest a proactive approach to adopting NIST's recommendations once they are available. Bitwarden's current use of AES-256 for vault encryption and RSA for secure sharing is robust against classical attacks but will need updates to counter quantum threats. (Bitwarden Community)

Psono's Approach to Quantum Resistance

Psono, being an open-source and self-hosted password manager, offers transparency in its security practices. It uses multiple layers of encryption, including client-side encryption and end-to-end encryption, which are currently secure. However, details on Psono's roadmap for integrating quantum-resistant algorithms have not been explicitly stated. Based on Psono's open source methodology, and wisely using unique strong algorithms among the industry, they could be the leader in adopting quantum-resistant algorithms. (Psono)

Passbolt's Security in the Quantum Era

Passbolt has undergone security assessments to ensure its resilience against various attack vectors. While current encryption methods are strong, the platform will need to evolve to incorporate quantum-resistant algorithms to maintain its security posture in the future. The recent security audit did not specifically address quantum resistance, but the ongoing development and updates could address this in the future. (Passbolt Security Audit Report)

Preparing for Quantum Challenges

LastPass has faced security breaches in the past, but it continues to use AES-256 encryption, which is quantum-resistant to some extent. However, the service will need to update its key exchange methods to be fully quantum-safe. 1Password, Keeper, Bitwarden have not reported breaches and also use AES-256 encryption. Psono while using different arguably stronger cryptography methods, has also never been breached.

Comparative Analysis of Quantum Resistance

A comparative analysis of the mentioned password managers shows that while all currently employ strong encryption methods suitable for today's threats, none have fully implemented quantum-resistant algorithms. The industry is awaiting the finalization of NIST's post-quantum cryptographic standards, which will likely prompt a shift across all password management solutions to adopt these new algorithms to safeguard against quantum computing threats. (MIT Technology Review)

Comparative Review of Security Features in Leading Password Managers

Security Algorithms Utilized by Password Managers

Password managers employ various encryption algorithms to secure user data. Bitwarden, Passbolt, 1Password, LastPass, and Keeper all use AES-256 encryption, which is what the industry has standardized on mostly due to its computational strength and resistance to brute-force attacks. AES-256 is considered secure against conventional computational attacks, including those performed by high-speed computers and distributed networks.

Bitwarden, for instance, not only uses AES-256 but also salts and hashes the master password with PBKDF2 SHA-256, a key derivation function that makes brute-force attacks more difficult by increasing the computational effort required to test each possible key (Bitwarden Security).

1Password employs a similar approach, using PBKDF2 along with AES-256 encryption to protect user data. Additionally, 1Password incorporates a Secret Key that adds an extra layer of security, as it is a unique key that is combined with the user's master password to unlock the encrypted data (1Password Security).

Keeper also emphasizes security with its proprietary zero-knowledge security architecture and uses PBKDF2 along with AES-256 encryption (Keeper Security).

Psono and NordPass (not mentioned in this article) uses a uniquely different approach as stated above. The ChaCha20/Salsa20 family is less prone to implementation errors, it is faster, and its overall simplicity makes it a winner in many eyes over AES.

Resistance to Brute-Force Attacks

The resistance to brute-force attacks is a critical aspect of password manager security. All the reviewed password managers implement features to mitigate such attacks. For example, almost all the vendors enforce strong master password policies and offer two-factor authentication (2FA) to add an additional layer of security.

Passbolt, being open-source and focused on team collaboration, uses OpenPGP, a non-proprietary protocol for encrypting email communication, which also provides strong resistance to brute-force attacks (Passbolt Security).

Psono, as an open-source solution, allows users to review and contribute to its security features, which includes protection against brute-force attacks through rate limiting and 2FA (Psono Security).

LastPass uses a combination of AES-256 bit encryption with PBKDF2 SHA-256 to create a secure environment that is resistant to brute-force attacks. They also offer advanced multi-factor options to enhance security (LastPass Security).

Challenges Posed by Quantum Computing

Quantum computing presents a significant challenge to current cryptographic standards. While AES-256 is secure against today's computers, it may be vulnerable to future quantum computers. As such, password managers are beginning to consider post-quantum cryptography (PQC) to ensure long-term security.

Bitwarden, for example, is actively monitoring the development of PQC standards and is committed to implementing quantum-resistant algorithms once they become standardized and practical for widespread use (Bitwarden and Quantum Resistance).

1Password has also acknowledged the potential threat posed by quantum computing and has expressed a commitment to evolve its security model to incorporate quantum-resistant algorithms when necessary (1Password and Quantum Computing).

Vulnerability to Password Cracking Tools

Password managers are designed to be resilient against password cracking tools. They achieve this by using encryption algorithms that are computationally intensive to crack, even with advanced tools. Additionally, they implement security measures such as account lockouts after several failed login attempts, CAPTCHAs, and requiring strong, unique passwords that are less susceptible to dictionary and rainbow table attacks.

For instance, Keeper has been noted for its security measures that protect against such tools, including a feature that allows users to set up a self-destruct sequence for their vault if an attacker attempts to breach it (Keeper Security Features).

Comparative Analysis of Security Features

When comparing the security features of these password managers, it is evident that they all prioritize strong encryption and resistance to brute-force attacks. Bitwarden , 1Password and Psono stand out for their additional security measures, such as the use of a Secret Key in 1Password and the extensive 2FA options provided by these services.

Passbolt's use of OpenPGP is unique among the group and provides a high level of security, particularly for developer teams who are familiar with PGP keys.

Psono and Bitwarden's open-source model allows for transparency and community involvement in its security, which can be a double-edged sword but also means continuous improvement and auditing by the community. Personally I see this as a positive thing, take for example the converse, the LastPass debacle.

In terms of preparing for quantum computing challenges, all password managers are aware of the potential threat and are taking steps to adapt their security models for the future. However, the actual implementation of PQC algorithms will depend on the standardization of these algorithms and their practical applicability to consumer software.

The Future of Password Security: Trends and Innovations

The landscape of password security is rapidly evolving with the advent of new technologies and the increasing sophistication of cyber threats. Traditional alphanumeric passwords are becoming less reliable as the sole method of authentication due to their vulnerability to brute-force attacks, social engineering, and phishing schemes. In response, password managers are integrating advanced security features to enhance user protection.

Biometric Authentication Integration

Password managers are increasingly incorporating biometric authentication methods such as fingerprint scanning, facial recognition, and iris scans. These methods provide a layer of security that is difficult to replicate, making them a robust alternative to traditional passwords. For instance, 1Password (1Password) offers biometric unlock features, leveraging the hardware capabilities of modern devices to ensure that only the authorized user can access their password vault. This includes Windows platforms using windows Hello for example. Psono and Bitwarden offer biometrics on the mobile apps, relying on the mobile devices face recognition to unlock the vault/app.

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

MFA adds an additional layer of security by requiring users to provide two or more verification factors to gain access to their accounts. Password managers like LastPass (LastPass) and Keeper (Keeper) offer MFA options, including time-based one-time passwords (TOTP), push notifications, or hardware tokens, significantly reducing the risk of unauthorized access. While Psono and Bitwarden adds support for native Duo, Fido2 /Webauthn and YubiKey for example. The key difference is Psono gives all the Bitwarden 2FA features for free, where with Bitwarden you must have "premium" to unlock Duo and Yubikey functionality.

Decentralized Authentication

Some password managers are exploring decentralized authentication mechanisms that do not rely on a central authority. This approach can potentially reduce the risk of mass data breaches. Passbolt (Passbolt), for example, is an open-source password manager that uses GPG (GNU Privacy Guard) for end-to-end encryption and authentication, providing a decentralized trust model.

Argon2 as a Password Hashing Solution

Argon2 is the winner of the Password Hashing Competition and is designed to be resistant to GPU cracking attacks, making it a strong candidate for password hashing in password managers. Bitwarden recently started supporting Argon2 to hash master passwords, providing a high level of protection against brute-force attacks. Psono has the next best thing to Argon2, which is Scrypt.

Post-Quantum Cryptography (PQC)

With the potential threat of quantum computing, password managers are beginning to consider the implementation of PQC algorithms. These algorithms are designed to be secure against the capabilities of quantum computers, which could potentially break current encryption methods. While still in the research phase, the adoption of PQC will be crucial for future-proofing password security.

Rate Limiting and Lockout Mechanisms

To combat brute-force attacks, password managers implement rate limiting and account lockout mechanisms. After a certain number of failed login attempts, the account is either locked for a period of time or additional verification is required. This significantly slows down brute-force attempts, making them impractical.

Password Generators

Password managers often include built-in password generators that create complex, high-entropy passwords that are more resistant to brute-force attacks. These generated passwords are difficult to guess and are unique to each account, reducing the risk of credential stuffing and other brute-force methods. As I stated in another blog post, the proper way to use a password manager is as follows. One creates a very strong single master password to access the platform with 2FA. The passwords for all of your apps and sites should be randomly generated. If using the built in Password generator tools of these platforms, this means a very long complex password which is unique from all other passwords in the platform. This is such that you do not even know or can remember all your complex passwords. This reduces risks of compromise on multiple fronts for obvious reasons.

Adaptation to Quantum Computing Challenges

Quantum computing poses a significant threat to current cryptographic standards. Password managers are beginning to explore quantum-resistant algorithms to prepare for this eventuality.

Quantum-Resistant Algorithms

While traditional encryption algorithms like RSA and ECC are vulnerable to quantum attacks, new quantum-resistant algorithms are being developed. These algorithms, based on lattice-based cryptography, hash-based cryptography, and multivariate polynomial cryptography, are believed to be secure against quantum computers. Some password managers may adopt a hybrid approach, combining traditional encryption with quantum-resistant algorithms. This dual strategy ensures compatibility with current systems while preparing for future quantum threats.

As cyber threats evolve, password managers must continuously update their security features to protect user data. A comparative review of the security measures employed by different password managers reveals a trend towards more sophisticated and multi-layered defense mechanisms.

Continuous Security Audits and Updates

Password managers like Psono, Bitwarden, LastPass, and Keeper regularly undergo security audits by third-party firms to identify and address vulnerabilities. These audits, combined with frequent updates, ensure that the password managers can respond quickly to emerging threats and maintain a high level of security for their users.

User Education and Security Awareness

In addition to technical measures, password managers are focusing on user education to enhance security. By providing users with best practices, security tips, and awareness of phishing and social engineering tactics, password managers like 1Password and Passbolt are empowering users to be proactive in their own security.

In closing, the future of password security in password managers is characterized by a move towards more advanced encryption methods, integration of biometric and multi-factor authentication methods, and preparation for the challenges posed by quantum computing.

These trends and innovations are critical in maintaining the integrity and confidentiality of user data in an increasingly hostile digital environment. We have already seen too many compromises in this space. Only those vendors with the most fanatical attention to security details should get your business. Lastly, if you want the ultimate in data sovereignty and you well versed in cybersecurity practices. Then self hosting either Psono or Bitwarden is overall the best method of any out there in my humble opinion.

Stay Secure



List of references used in this article.