Don’t Use Mozilla Persona to Secure High-Value Data

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Mozilla Persona (formerly called Browser ID) is a login system that Mozilla has developed to make it better for users to sign in at sites without having to remember passwords. But I have seen a trend recently of people within Mozilla insisting that we should use Persona for all logins. This is a mistake: the security properties of Persona are simply not good enough to secure high-value data such as the Mozilla security bug database, user crash dumps, or other high-value information.

The chain of trust in Persona has several attack points:

The Public Key: HTTPS Fetch

When the user submits a login “assertion”, the website (Relying Party or RP) fetches the public key of the email provider (Identity Provider or IdP) using HTTPS. For instance, when I log in as, the site I’m logging into will fetch This relies on the public key and CA infrastructure of the internet. Attacking this part of the chain is hard because it’s the network connection between two servers. This doesn’t appear to be a significant risk factor to me except for perhaps some state actors.

The Public Key: Attacking the IdP HTTPS Server

Attacking the email provider’s web server, on the other hand, becomes a very high value proposition. If an attacker can replace the .well-known/browserid file on a major email provider (gmail, yahoo, etc) they have the ability to impersonate every user of that service. This puts a huge responsibility on email providers to monitor and secure their HTTPS site, which may not typically be part of their email system at all. It is likely that this kind of intrusion will cause signin problems across multiple users and will be detected, but there is no guarantee that individual users will be aware of the compromise of their accounts.

Signing: Accessing the IdP Signing System

Persona email providers can silently impersonate any of their users just by the nature of the protocol. This opens the door to silent identity attacks by anyone who can access the private key of the identity/email provider. This can either be subverting the signing server, or by using legal means such as subpoenas or national security letters. In these cases, the account compromise is almost completely undetectable by either the user or the RP.

What About Password-Reset Emails?

One common defense of Persona is that email providers already have access to users account via password-reset emails. This is partly true, but it ignores an essential property of these emails: when a password is reset, a user will be aware of the attack then next time they try to login. Being unable to login will likely trigger a cautious user to review the details of their account or ask for an audit. Attacks against the IdP, on the other hand, are silent and are not as likely to trigger alarm bells.

Who Should Use Persona?

Persona is a great system for the multitude of lower-value accounts people keep on the internet. Persona is the perfect solution for the Mozilla Status Board. I wish the UI were better and built into the browser: the current UI that requires JS, shim libraries, and popup windows; it is not a great experience. But the tradeoff for not having to store and handle passwords on the server is worth that small amount of pain.

For any site with high-value data, Persona is not a good choice. On, we disabled password reset emails for users with access to security bugs. This decision indicates that persona should also be considered an unacceptable security risk for these users. Persona as a protocol doesn’t have the right security properties.

It would be very interesting to combine Persona with some other authentication system such as client certificates or a two-factor system. This would allow most users to use the simple login system, while providing extra security properties when users start to access high-value resources.

In the meantime, Mozilla should be careful how it promotes and uses Persona; it’s not a universal solution and we should be careful not to bill it as one.

Graph of the Day: Old Flash Versions and Blocklist Effectiveness

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Today’s graph charts the percentage of Firefox users who have known-insecure versions of Flash. It also allows us to visually see the impact of various plugin blocks that have been staged over the past few months.

We are gradually rolling out blocks for more and more versions of Flash. In order to make sure that the blocklist was not causing significant user pain, we started out with the oldest versions of Flash that have the fewest users. We have since been expanding the block to include more recent versions of Flash that are still insecure. We hope to extend these blocks to all insecure versions of Flash in the next few months.

Flash Insecure Release Distribution

From the data, we see that users on very old versions of Flash (Flash 10.2 and earlier) are not changing their behavior because of the blocklist. This either means that the users never see Flash content, or that they always click through the warning. It is also possible that they attempted to upgrade but for some reason are unable.

Users with slightly newer versions seem more likely to upgrade. Over about a month, almost half of the users who had insecure versions of Flash 10.3-11.2 have upgraded.

Finally, it is interesting that these percentages drop down on the weekends. This indicates that work or school computers are more likely to have insecure versions of Flash than home computers. Because there are well-known exploits for all of these Flash versions, this represents a significant risk to organizations who are not keeping up with security updates!

View the chart in HTML version and the raw data. This data was brought to you by Telemetry, and so the standard cautions apply: telemetry is an opt-in sample on the beta/release channels, and may under-represent certain populations, especially enterprise deployments which may lock telemetry off by default. This data represents Windows users only, because we just recently started collecting Flash version information on Mac, and the Linux Flash player doesn’t expose its version at all.

Raw aggregates for Flash usage can be found in my dated directories on, for example yesterday’s aggregate counts. You are welcome to scrape this data if you want to play with it; I am also willing to provide interested researchers with additional data dumps on request.

Firefox 1.0.7!?

Saturday, December 8th, 2007

I used my father-in-law’s laptop recently. I had installed Firefox on it for him when he bought it, and I was happy to see it was still the default browser. I thought it was a little odd that it opened new windows by default instead of new tabs, and then I had a terrible suspicion and checked “Help -> About Firefox” and discovered to some dismay that he was still running Firefox 1.0.7.

Needless to say I installed an up-to-date version immediately. I wonder how many other people might have no clue that their applications are incredibly out of date. I also wonder why his security software (virus scanner/firewall) wouldn’t warn him about such an important aspect of system security.

Signed email with GnuPG and Enigmail

Tuesday, September 12th, 2006

Today I installed GnuPG and Enigmail and started signing my email correspondence. I’ve been meaning to do this for a long time, because I firmly believe that digital signing is the only long-term solution to spam. I don’t think that PGP signing will by itself solve the problem, without an additional web-of-trust UI for easily verifying public keys, but at least now if you want to, you can verify that an email that purports to be from me is actually from me.

My public key is available here.

“AutoRun is turned off”

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

I’ve been having problems playing CDs on Windows: if I have Windows Media Player running and I switch (audio) CDs, WMP never recognizes that the CD has changed. I couldn’t figure out what was going on; I even upgraded WMP to the latest beta (which, it turns out, I intensely dislike), but that didn’t solve the problem. (more…)