Obscurity or nothing?

Eugenia at OSNews ran an editorial today regarding password storage in the popular Pidgin IM client (formerly known as Gaim). Her complaint was that Pidgin stores the user's passwords as plain text, which is obviously insecure. However, the developers strenuously object to her proposed solution: obfuscation.

Basically the situation is that Pidgen does not have an encryption scheme for IM account passwords. Some people have submitted patches, e.g. to use gnome-keyring, but the developers don't want to tie themselve to any particular keyring implementation. So, in the absence of any real security, some users have suggested adding fake security, such as ROT13 encoding the passwords. Their argument is essentially that such obfuscation is better than nothing. The Pidgin devs, on the other hand, argue that this does nothing but provide a false sense of security, which is actually worse than being insecure.

I think the Pidgin developers have a good point here. For one thing, the use-case for obfuscation seems to be a little shakey. The general idea is that obfuscation would keep your passwords safe from nontechnical users who would have local access to your machine, such as a parent or co-worker. Presumably they would be able to find the accounts file, but not figure out the obfuscated password. The problem with this is that tools and methods to "recover" IM passwords are all over the net. All you have to do is Google it. Obfuscation would only stop people who are too stupid to use a search engine and those who are too unmotivated to use one. And for those types of attackers, proper file permissions and locking your terminal when you get up from the desk would be sufficient anyway.

To me, this sounds like a "shut up" feature, i.e. the kind of feature a developer implements not because it is actually good or useful, but because the customer thinks it is good and useful. "Fine, I'll do it if it'll shut you up!" This doesn't add any real security and it's not clear that it would stop even non-technical users who actually want your password, but it would make users feel better. That's the kind of thing you do in the commercial world for a whiney customer. I don't think it has any place in the open-source world.

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