DALock: Password Distribution-Aware Throttling

Authors: Jeremiah Blocki (Purdue University), Wuwei Zhang (Purdue University)

Volume: 2022
Issue: 3
Pages: 516–537
DOI: https://doi.org/10.56553/popets-2022-0084

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Abstract: Large-scale online password guessing attacks are widespread and pose a persistant privacy and security threat to users. The common method for mitigating the risk of online cracking is to lock out the user after a fixed number (K) of consecutive incorrect login attempts. Selecting the value of K induces a classic security-usability trade-off. When K is too large, a hacker can (quickly) break into a significant fraction of user accounts, but when K is too low, we will start to annoy honest users by locking them out after a few mistakes. Motivated by the observation that honest user mistakes typically look quite different from an online attacker’s password guesses, we introduce DALock, a distribution-aware password lockout mechanism to reduce user annoyance while minimizing user risk. As the name suggests, DALock is designed to be aware of the frequency and popularity of the password used for login attacks. At the same time, standard throttling mechanisms (e.g., K-strikes) are oblivious to the password distribution. In particular, DALock maintains an extra “hit count" in addition to “strike count" for each user, which is based on (estimates of) the cumulative probability of all login attempts for that particular account. We empirically evaluate DALock with an extensive battery of simulations using real-world password datasets. In comparison with the traditional K-strikes mechanism, our simulations indicate that DALock offers a superior simulated security/usability trade-off. For example, in one of our simulations, we are able to reduce the success rate of an attacker to 0.05% (compared to 1% for the 3strikes mechanism) whilst simultaneously reducing the unwanted lockout rate for accounts that are not under attack to just 0.08% (compared to 4% for the 3-strikes mechanism).

Keywords: Authentication Throttling; Password; Dictionary Attack

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