It’s overwhelming these days–everywhere I’m asked for a user name and a password. It’d be great if only there was a convenient and widely adopted way of proving my identity, or more precisely, my rights to access something (if I don’t really want to expose my identity as such). Meanwhile, I have to deal with passwords somehow.
There’s plenty of resources (books, articles) which explain why having a good password is important, and why not to reuse passwords. I’m not going to duplicate any of those. The reality is that I need unique and strong passwords, many of them, period.
There are also various ways of storing passwords, but what I’m after here is picking a software password manager (vault).
Enter password managers
It’s a mess, like with pretty much everything, from picking a place to go for a trip to choosing the “right” email provider. There’s so much to choose from, which can easily cause a headache and eat up all of my (scarce) spare time. First thing then was for me to find out what I want, to somewhat constrain the list of choices.
Here’s my shopping list:
- portable (Linux, MacOS, iOS)
- custom fields
- something I could potentially sell to my family
Requiring it to work offline and yet remain portable means to me that the password manager uses an encrypted store (file(s)) which I can synchronise automatically using my own mechanism (something for another post). I don’t want the password manager to mess with it. This also means the same store can be used across different platforms.
As much as I try to limit my use of the (smart) phone, the reality is that it’s too convenient to have my passwords available on it. A truly paranoid individuals would probably want to use a dedicated machine for example to access their banking, and never really need passwords for anything important on their phone. Also it’s healthier to stay away from phone as much as possible and plan a task requiring a password to be completed for example on a laptop. Compulsive online shopping or logging into online banking to make a money transfer while in a pub is no good. But again, the reality is that it’s easier to carry a phone with me if I need to tweak some settings on my kid’s tablet which may require a password to the parent’s account on that tablet. Or something as tedious as this. And I want to use unique and strong passwords even (or especially for) those mundane accounts.
I also try to encourage my family to manage their passwords as well. In order to support them, it’s easier if they use the same solution.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t come across many passwords managers. Maybe there’s still one that I missed and which would be the best choice for me. I do not feel like I’m done with it yet.
I also do not intend to enumerate all password managers I evaluated or read about, except for only few of them. This is also all very subjective.
For many years I had been using LastPass but became concerned about storing my passwords in the “cloud”, even if the promise is that they are encrypted and safe. I started to look for an alternative.
I loved the idea of pass, the standard unix password manager. Very neat, command-line based with plenty of UI clients and extensions. The problem I had with it at the time was that the iOS client required the passwords to be synchronised with Git. I didn’t like the idea of either running my own Git instance (which I might actually change my mind about at some point), nor the idea of storing the files on any Git provider’s instance, even as a private repository. Being lazy at the time I looked for an easier solution.
For some time I stuck with KeePassXC which met all my criteria. It worked well for me, even though the synchronisation with iOS client was somewhat awkward (had to manually send the synced database file to the client app). Overall, it still felt like I was forcing myself to use it rather than simply love it, which kept me open for alternatives.
I really liked BitWarden, being open source and all. The only downside was that it used its own synchronisation mechanism. Possibly I could live with that by running my own instance but at the time I looked for an easier solution.
Eventually I ended up with Enpass. Big warning: it’s closed source which makes me really sad about it, but for the time being I decided to suck it up as the features looked really plausible to me. I don’t even mind that the iOS/macOS versions are paid to unlock handling more than 20 passwords (or so)–at least a single license is enough to use it on multiple devices (there’s a limit) which is good enough to share it with my family. It also does not provide CLI, but again, for the time being the features it provides outweigh what I’m missing from it.
What I like about it is that it handles TOTP tokens which means this factor is synchronised across all my devices. I just hate the idea of losing my phone whilst being the only TOTP token provider. Another nice thing about it is that there’s an option to also require unlock key (file) in addition to the master password. So even if someone captures my master password and seizes my password database, they still need that unlock key which I may hold on a separate USB dongle (and backed up if I lose the dongle). On the phone the unlock key is provided by scanning QR code. Losing my phone, yet worse–someone gaining access to it, is a complete different story.
I synchronise the database on my laptop through the file system and my own Nextcloud instance while on other devices I use WebDAV protocol. Works like a charm.
I still do not feel I have a perfect solution to managing passwords. I’m open for discovering something better. I may likely reevaluate pass, and either overcome the problems I had with it, or possibly revisit my requirements (simplify!).