June 18, 2014, 2:02 PM — Thanks to high-profile computer security scares such as the Heartbleed vulnerability and the Target data breach , and to the allegations leveled at the government and cloud providers by Edward Snowden, more of us Internet users are wising up about the security of our information. One of the smarter moves we can make to protect ourselves is to use a password manager. It's one of the easiest too.
A password manager won't shield you against Heartbleed or the NSA, but it's an excellent first step in securing your identity, helping you increase the strength of the passwords that protect your online accounts because it will remember those passwords for you. A password manager will even randomly generate strong passwords, without requiring you to memorize or write down these random strings of characters. These strong passwords help shield against traditional password attacks such as dictionary, rainbow tables, or brute-force attacks.
Many password managers allow you to automatically populate your password vault by capturing your Web log-ins using a browser plug-in and allowing you to store these credentials. Other options for populating your password database include importing an Excel spreadsheet or manually entering your log-in information. Further, using these stored credentials is typically automated using a browser plug-in, which recognizes the website's username and password fields, then populates these fields with the appropriate log-in information.
Although several browsers offer similar functionality out of the box, many password managers offer several benefits over the built-in browser functionality -- including encryption, cross-platform and cross-browser synchronization, mobile device support, secure sharing of credentials, and support for multifactor authentication. In some cases, usernames and passwords must be copied from the password manager into the browser, reducing the ease-of-use but increasing the level of security by requiring entry of the master password before accessing stored log-in information.
Some password managers store your credentials locally, others rely on cloud services for storage and synchronization, and still others take a hybrid approach. Some of the options using local storage (such as KeePass and 1Password) still support synchronization through Dropbox or other storage services. Deciding which password manager is best for you will come down to features and ease-of-use, as well as to whether you're comfortable storing your passwords on the Internet.
If having your critical data stored in a cloud service worries you, then KeePass, 1Password, or SplashID Safe (sans SplashID's cloud service) offer the best options. If you trust cloud-based services with your passwords and believe they will really protect your data using good security practices and encryption, then LastPass, Dashlane, or PasswordBox are your best bets.
In my judgment, KeePass is the best of the options using local storage. The fact that it's open source, free, and complemented by countless plug-ins adds up to a very flexible option. With the right combination of plug-ins, KeePass can be made to do just about anything you could require of a password manager. My favorite cloud option is LastPass, primarily due to its low cost and the consistent implementation of features across all of the clients. Each LastPass client I tested was easy to work with, stable, and remarkably uniform from a usability perspective. Additionally, the fact that a LastPass Premium account is all of $1 per month makes it an extremely compelling option.
But one of these other options might suit you better. Really, you can't go wrong with any of these password managers.
Like KeePass, 1Password uses a local file to store encrypted passwords. AgileBits does not provide a cloud service for synchronization with mobile devices, but 1Password does support synchronization of the password vault using Dropbox (all platforms) or iCloud (Mac and iOS only). 1Password also supports synchronization over Wi-Fi between Windows, Mac, and iOS clients. Because the 1Password vault is contained in a single file, you gain the convenience of a portable password vault without having to store your passwords on the Internet.
1Password clients allow you to create and maintain multiple password vaults. Multiple vaults can be used to share some of your passwords with another family member or coworker. Secure sharing between 1Password clients is supported, giving you a method to transmit a login (or any sensitive information, such as a credit card number or the answer to a website's security question) to another licensed 1Password user over an encrypted channel. Emailing login information in plain text is also supported, but this information is only as secure as your email traffic.
The cost of using 1Password is markedly different than cloud-based password lockers. Users must purchase clients for each platform they intend to use, costing more up front than a subscription service, but potentially saving money in the long term. 1Password for PC and Mac cost $49.99, while the universal iOS version runs $17.99. The Android app is free with in-app purchases, providing read-only access to your password vault until you purchase the upgrade. AgileBits also provides bundled options for purchasing 1Password for PC and Mac or a five-user family license.
My biggest concern with 1Password has to do with feature parity between the Mac and PC versions. Currently both platforms offer similar features, largely due to a massive update to the Windows version just days before publication of this article. Previously, features such as secure sharing or Wi-Fi sync were nowhere to be found. AgileBits has made good on promises to bring these features to all platforms, but if you're primarily a PC user, the lag may be cause for concern. Regardless, 1Password is a strong password manager. With AgileBits' strong ties to the Apple community, this is particularly true for Mac and iOS users.
Dashlane toes the line between cloud service and local password manager in an attempt to answer every security concern. You can store your password database on Dashlane's servers and take advantage of synchronization across devices, or you can store your password vault locally and forgo synchronization. It's your choice.
If you store your password database in Dashlane's cloud, your master password remains with you only. Rather than storing a hash of the master password on its servers, Dashlane claims to use your password merely to encrypt and decrypt the data locally. For this reason your password database on the Web is read only, and changes can solely be made on a client.
Authentication is performed against devices that are registered with Dashlane through a two-step process, incorporating your master password and a device registration code sent via email. Two pricing tiers are offered for Dashlane users. A free account allows access to your passwords through a single device of your choice. Premium accounts, which cost $29.99 per year, let you synchronize your passwords across multiple devices, give you access to the read-only Web app, and entitle you to Dashlane's customer support.
With Dashlane, retention of your master password is critical. The company states that it is unable to perform password recovery in the event of loss, a necessary side effect of its decision to not store a copy of your password in any form. Two-factor authentication is also supported through the use of Google Authenticator. Support for two-factor authentication must be enabled through the Windows or Mac client and can only be used on Internet-connected clients. Dashlane's secure sharing process combines an email containing a link and an access code, both of which expire within a short period of time. It's the best approach to secure password sharing I've seen.
Because Dashlane attempts to be a hybrid of a cloud-based and local password manager, it isn't as full featured as other cloud offerings, and it may not win over customers fearful of cloud services. However, Dashlane has been able to accomplish something truly remarkable through no small amount of ingenuity and attention to security precautions. Before you dismiss Dashlane because it's a cloud-based service, take a look at the company's security whitepaper, which details the concepts and security practices it has implemented.
A mature open source project (GNU GPL version 2), KeePass is a free password management solution for Windows, OS X, or Linux, running natively on Windows and requiring Mono for the other platforms. Many of the benefits of open source software are prevalent in KeePass, including ports to other client operating systems and a robust plug-in ecosystem. With the extensibility offered by plug-ins for KeePass, you can change the encryption algorithm, automate logins through your browser, integrate an on-screen keyboard, or even create scripts you can run against KeePass.
KeePass was designed to store a local copy of the password vault. Cloud backup and support for synchronization across multiple devices are obtained through plug-ins that work with the likes of Dropbox, Google Docs, and Microsoft OneDrive. A side benefit of a local password database such as KeyPass is the ability for multiple users to share a database or for one user to keep multiple databases, sharing some and keeping others private.
With KeePass, you can lock your password vault using a combination of password, key file, and Windows authentication.
Mobile support for KeePass is a little more obtuse than some of the commercial options. Ports are available for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone, but the big question becomes synchronization support. Not all mobile ports support cloud synchronization, and those that do support only a subset of the cloud options. Some mobile KeePass clients carry a cost, though most are in the $1 to $2 range.
If you're more concerned about the security of your password vault than mobile clients and device synchronization, you'll be pleased to know that KeePass supports multiple authentication methods by default. KeePass database files can be locked by a combination of password, key file, and Windows user account. With a key file stored on removable media such as a USB thumb drive, two-factor authentication can be used to secure access to your critical passwords.
The biggest downside to KeePass is complexity. Getting all of the advanced functionality offered by the competition will require quite a bit of research, setup, and maintenance. While KeePass is a great solution for fans of open source, maximum flexibility, and free software, it is certainly not as straightforward as some of the cloud-based services listed here.
LastPass may be the most popular password manager in this review, due to a rich set of features, support for a wide range of mobile platforms, and straightforward licensing, not to mention aggressive marketing. Unlike KeePass, LastPass is decidedly cloud-centric, using its own cloud service to store user information and synchronize data.
LastPass offers a free and premium pricing tier for consumers, with the premium service costing just $1 per month. Users of the free edition get many of the basics you'd expect from a cloud-based service, including plug-in support for multiple browsers, anywhere access, and even support for multifactor authentication using Google Authenticator on an Android or iOS device or Microsoft Authenticator on Windows Phone. Mobile device support requires a premium account but includes support for iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone. Even some mobile browsers such as Dolphin and Firefox Mobile work with LastPass Premium to automate username and password entry. Finally, premium users get access to the LastPass support team, rather than being relegated to the user forums.
LastPass offers handy functionality for sharing accounts with friends and family. The free service allows you to selectively share account login information with other LastPass users, allowing them to authenticate to individual Web applications using your information, without giving them direct access to your passwords. Premium account subscribers get access to a Family Folder, a feature that lets you specify exactly which login information to share with up to five other LastPass users.
Desktop support for LastPass is somewhat confusing. Downloading the basic installer for Windows provides browser plug-ins, an import tool (for migrating from another password vault or spreadsheet), and a shortcut to the LastPass Web app. Premium subscribers also have access to LastPass for applications, which provides increased utility by allowing you to automatically log into desktop applications such as Skype or a corporate VPN client.
LastPass supports several forms of two-factor authentication. I've already mentioned that both Microsoft Authenticator and Google Authenticator are supported with free accounts, providing simple integration using a mobile device. Premium accounts gain support for Yubikey, a USB hardware authentication device, and Sesame, a software authentication tool run from a USB storage device.
If you need simple password management in a Web app, you can't go wrong with a free LastPass account. For more granular credential sharing and mobile device support, LastPass premium will be the best $1 you spend each month.
PasswordBox bears a number of similarities to Dashlane. Master passwords are neither stored nor transmitted, meaning that password data is secured throughout the process, and password resets are technically impossible. PasswordBox even takes extra steps to ensure the security of your information in other ways, such as PCI-compliant data centers and providing the ability to send the company encrypted email using the PGP key published on its website.
PasswordBox is currently missing some of the features available in Dashlane, such as two-factor authentication, but both two-factor and fingerprint-based authentication are reportedly coming soon. You can read about the security measures PasswordBox uses to safeguard password data in the company's security whitepaper.
PasswordBox does not use stand-alone client programs on Windows and Mac, opting instead for browser plug-ins (Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer), but mobile apps are available for both iOS and Android. Another minor oddity: PasswordBox doesn't offer a Web app to view or edit passwords or manage your account -- everything is handled via mobile app or browser plug-in.
PasswordBox is priced competitively with the other cloud-based password managers. Free accounts support up to 25 stored passwords, including synchronization and full sharing capabilities. Premium accounts cost $12 per year and give you unlimited password storage. Referring five friends nets you a premium account for life.
PasswordBox allows users (free or premium) to share saved log-in information seamlessly between accounts, even without the passwords being visible. Shared log-ins persist even through password changes, and they can be revoked at any time. An interesting and unique feature of PasswordBox is the Legacy Locker, which allows you to designate one or more responsible parties who get access to your account information in the event of your death. Account transfers using Legacy Locker are not performed until a death certificate is provided and validated.
For truly cutting-edge security, PasswordBox has partnered with the soon-to-be-released Nymi authentication device. The Nymi wristband measures your cardiac rhythm to offer three-factor authentication to PasswordBox -- using your master password (something you know), your Nymi wristband (something you have), and your heartbeat (something you are). The Nymi can be pre-ordered for $79, and it will include a premium PasswordBox account for life.
SplashID has been in the password manager business for years. Its product, SplashID Safe, has been particularly popular on mobile devices. Currently SplashID Safe supports access through the Web and client apps for Windows desktop, Windows 8, Mac, iOS, Android, Blackberry 10, and Windows Phone.
Where other password managers are either local or cloud-based, SplashID Safe supports either option. The SplashID cloud service allows you to synchronize your password vault over the Internet for $1.99 per month or $19.99 per year. For users who don't want to store their password vault in the cloud, SplashID is available in a version that supports manual synchronization over Wi-Fi (for a one-time cost of $29.99) or a no-sync version for $9.99.
For an additional $5 per user per month, families or businesses can leverage SplashID Safe Teams edition, which adds an admin panel that allows you to control who has access to each record, either by assigning a record to an individual user or a group of users. Note that the Windows 8 client is not currently supported in the Teams edition.
SplashID Safe has at least one feature we wish all the cloud-based services would implement: the ability to configure a login as local only, giving you the ability to prevent your most sensitive data from being stored on the Internet. The idea is that if you have certain login information or other sensitive data you don't trust to the Internet, you can prevent this information from being uploaded to SplashID's servers.
SplashID Safe lets users share login information by sending an email containing a link to retrieve the information. Links to shared information are secured with a password (which can be included in the email or shared using another method), are valid for only 24 hours, and expire after the first use.
Two-factor support in SplashID only provides an extra layer of security when registering a new device (not on each login), requiring you to enter a six-digit code sent via email. While a registered device paired with a password technically meets the definition of two-factor authentication (something you have and something you know), it's not quite up to par with services offering support for Google Authenticator or other two-factor methods. SplashID Safe offers a pattern unlock feature as an alternative to a master password, but I found this feature to be somewhat inconsistent.
It's always nice when a security product is backed by a brand synonymous with computer security, and Symantec's Norton Identity Safe certainly has that factor in its favor. Identity Safe has another plus: It's completely free. You have a number of free password managers to choose from, but none are cloud services operated by a software vendor with a level of trust built up over decades. Norton Identity Safe used to be part of a Norton security suite, but it's now a stand-alone service with a Web front end and clients for Windows, iOS, and Android.
RoboForm is a popular password manager and form filler, but it falls short of the leading contenders on a few counts. Though it offers synchronization across multiple platforms, there is no Web app, two-factor authentication, or sharing capability. Individual RoboForm desktop licenses can be purchased outright for Mac or PC at a price of $29.95, and a Windows portable version for USB storage is available for $39.95. RoboForm also offers subscription-based licensing for $19.95 per year, which provides synchronization and access through mobile apps on iOS, Android, Windows 8, and Windows Phone.
KeePass isn't the only open source password manager. There's also Password Safe, currently available for Windows in both installable and portable versions, and for Linux in a beta version. Password Safe is not nearly as feature-rich or mature as KeePass, and I'd be hard-pressed to give you a reason to use it over its big brother. That said, Password Safe is a viable alternative, and if all you need is a local password manager, the decision may come down to which program you find easier to use. The result may be Password Safe.
My1Login has both a free version, supported through advertisements and affiliate links to partner sites, and a pro version, which eliminates the ads and affiliate links for $2 per month. My1Login offers features commonly found in the other contenders such as secure sharing and strong password generation. The problem with My1Login is that the entire service is Web-based, with mobile support coming through the mobile Web app only. While My1Login is enthusiastic about the minimal setup requirements due to the lack of client applications, I find this method to be more difficult to use in the long term.
Keeper Backup is full-featured password manager supporting multiple client platforms, including Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. Security features offered by Keeper Backup include two-factor authentication and secure sharing. Keeper offers three pricing tiers, starting with a free edition that supports one device, no sharing, and a limited amount of data. Keeper Backup provides unlimited storage, access to the Keeper Web app, secure sharing, and access to the support team for $9.99 per year. Backup Unlimited adds support for synchronization across devices for a heftier $29.99 per year.
Trend Micro's DirectPass has a free option that supports only five passwords. Trend Micro's subscription service, which costs $14.95 for one year or $24.95 for two years, supports an unlimited number of passwords and devices. Desktop clients are available for both PC and Mac, and mobile clients are available for iOS and Android. While there's nothing wrong with DirectPass, it doesn't match other competitors in features or polish.