GNOME Cleartext Passwords: Bug or Feature?

11/02/2009

The current discussion in the Ubuntu forums is about a possible security hole in GNOME, specifically about GNOME registered users having their passwords appear as cleartext on the keyring. Not a bug, say its defenders, but the security concept behind the GNOME keyring.

In the discussion thread, the discoverer of the "blatant security flaw" gave an example of how it happens in Ubuntu 9.10. The user starts Ubuntu and registers on the desktop. The path through the Applications | Accessories | Passwords and Encryption Keyrings menus arrives at the keyring manager. Clicking on the Login folder shows the application processes and programs (including WLAN and mail accounts) and their respective passwords.

A right mouse click on an entry shows a context menu of properties, one of its tab being for keys. Clicking Password pops up a screen asking whether keyring access is allowed, for which no restrictions exist. The passphrase then appears and can be viewed as cleartext.

Critics of this approach provide a scenario whereby a profile owner has multiple users allowing access to the account. Operating in WLAN mode he wants to ensure that his keyring passphrase is secure. The suggestion is to further secure it through the user password so that guests need to know the profile owner's password before discovering what the keyring passphrases are. As it is, so goes the argument, users without much technical knowhow can easily steal the passphrases, so that additional password protection would deter "99% of potential identify thieves."

Defenders of the GNOME keyring strategy assure that only registered users have access to passphrases, the solution being to "lock your screen if you walk away." Defenders refer to the gnome-keyring security philosophy that suggests just that: locking the screen and creating guest logins. For those who still consider this a problem, so far no hard and fast solution exists. However, it is being actively discussed, among other places in the gnome-keyring mailing list.

( Kristian Kissling)