profile picture

Exploring the World of Password Managers

tags: privacy security passwords

Passwords are miserable to deal with. Bad passwords are both terrifyingly tempting and incredibly common. Good passwords and hygiene all but require complicated management schemes like password managers and a fair bit of diligence. At the same time, passwords are used so frequently that it's most practical to have access to all of your passwords on every device.

Further, password breaches are so commonplace that just about anyone who's used the internet in the past 20 years has probably had one compromised. While efforts to supplement and displace passwords as the standard form of authentication are slowly gaining traction, it's inevitable that passwords are going to remain a core part of digital security for the foreseeable future.

Fortunately, many of the pitfalls of passwords can be mitigated through two-factor authentication, or 2FA. Even so, it is frighteningly common for companies to rely on SMS for 2FA, or otherwise allow 2FA to be bypassed through social engineering, access to a phone number, or an email.

In this post, I'll be talking about the password managers I've used and recommend. Then, I'll outline the properties a good password manager should have. Finally, I'll introduce a project I've been working on related to this.

As a small disclaimer, I'm not a cryptographer. My "formal" training essentially boils down to a few first-year intro to CS classes in I took this year in college. So, while I'll be talking a lot about different password managers, remember that the best password manager for you is the one that you fully understand.

You Should Just Use a Password Manager

For most threat models, this is a solved problem. Problems that are as important yet difficult as password management have many pre-existing solutions for all sorts of devices, security levels, and preferences.

My go-to recommendation for people is Bitwarden. Bitwarden is an Open Source password manager with secure cloud sync, convenient and appealing clients for nearly every platform, and a very generous free tier. They have a track record of good performance in third-party security audits, a browser extension, and zero-knowledge cloud sync with standard, reliable cryptography.

If you're more the self-hosting type, the official Bitwarden server is fully Open Source and available as a Docker image. Alternatively, the popular and lightweight vaultwarden is a Bitwarden server implementation (written in Rust!) that's compatible with the regular Bitwarden client applications, making deployment for individuals, families, and small teams really easy.

Don't like the cloud? KeePassXC is a Free Software application that provides a local password database with various additional encryption options such as keyfiles and a hardware token Challenge-Response.

While I don't necessarily recommend relying on them, there are even more options if, for some reason, the above options don't work for you. 1Password provides a pretty seamless experience, especially within the Apple ecosystem. Your browser probably has one built in, and maybe even your Operating System, too. These options can be especially useful if the user is only going to use a password manager if it's less friction than whatever they were doing before. Any password manager is going to be way better than trying to remember your passwords or, worse, re-use them.

What I Use

If I were a sensible person, I would still be using Bitwarden. However, I just seem to really love making my computer harder to use for the fun of it. Once I switched to QubesOS full time, I wanted to keep all of my passwords in an offline virtual machine, which requires an offline password manager. At this point, I switched to KeePassXC. It works very well, and is probably the most sensible solution for most QubesOS users or those who otherwise prefer an entirely local solution.

Recently, in an effort to eliminate as many GUI applications as possible from my machine, I've been occasionally thinking about other offline password manager options that worked from the terminal.

It wasn't until I happened to read a few blog posts by Filippo Valsorda that the idea for a real alternative began to form. Filippo, "a cryptography and software engineer... in charge of cryptography and security on the Go team at Google," is the author of age, a file encryption tool.

What does this have to do with password managers? At the core of every password manager (or, at least, any password manager that's worthwhile) is some cryptographic algorithm to take your passwords and obfuscate them so that only you can access them. For example, Bitwarden encrypts your passwords with AES-CBC, using PBKDF2 to derive the encryption key from your master password. You can see this in action with Bitwarden's interactive crypto page, which I think is pretty cool.

pass is another password manager that describes itself as "the standard unix password manager". pass is actually a very clever script run through the command line that stores passwords at ~/.password-store as a tree of normal directories and files.

For example, from the pass website, the directory could look something like this:

Password Store
├── Business
│   ├──
│   └──
├── Email
│   ├──
│   └──
└── France
    ├── bank
    ├── freebox
    └── mobilephone

Each of those files contains a gpg-encrypted password for the website. They're accessed by using the pass command to decrypt the files with a gpg private key. However, I strongly dislike the idea of relying on gpg to protect my passwords. While I do have a PGP key, I avoid using it whenever there's a more suitable alternative available. Many cryptographers have written about the issues with PGP, but the biggest concern for me is the number of foot-guns with the PGP protocol and gpg tool. Even in a standard configuration like pass, where I'm offloading calling gpg to the script, the system is just too complicated for me to be confident in my understanding of it.

By contrast, age touts its opinionated nature as a feature. The lack of configuration, secure-by-design specification, and simplicity make it, in my opinion, the perfect encryption tool to be used with pass.

Properties of a Good Password Manager


The most obviously-essential property of a password manager is to make sure that nobody can read its contents without the keys. There are several types of adversary a password manager needs to protect against, but it primarily boils down to protecting its passwords even if someone gains access to your encrypted password database.

You should be able to post your encrypted database on your blog or send it to Mark Zuckerberg himself without a concern in the world. In other words, the security properties of your database should be completely upheld by cryptography, and not rely on more error-prone protections like storing it offline or keeping it in a private cloud account.


Have you ever been unable to login to an account when you really, really needed to? Yeah, I have. Wasn't a fun time. Passwords are so important that even the possibility of downtime is a serious concern. Even if you can eventually recover the data, being unable to decrypt your password database at a vital moment can is stressful, humiliating, and potentially disastrous.

A good password manager works when you don't have internet, when your laptop runs out of battery, when you're traveling, and when all of those are happening at once but you have a flight to catch in an hour. You should be following (at bare minimum) a standard 3-2-1 backup strategy -- and your password manager should make that as easy as possible.


Cryptography that's hard to use is worse than no cryptography at all; just ask PGP.

If reaching for your password manager isn't the lowest-friction way of signing up for an account, you're going to mess up and re-use a password, or make one up and forget it. Convenience is really key here. You can have the most secure password manager in the world, but if you can't access it on your phone, or another computer, you'll quickly email or text a password to yourself to log into that account you really, really need right now.

On the other hand, it also has to be extra resistant to misuse. All it takes is saving a password unencrypted once, or accidentally typing your Master Password into an innocuous pop-up you didn't notice, to completely compromise yourself.


You aren't the only one who needs access to your accounts. Should something happen to you, or some other unforeseen situation come up, there needs to be a "break glass in case of emergency" option -- without compromising on the password manager's fundamental security properties. With password managers, this often comes in the form of some adaptation of "Emergency Access." Essentially, the idea is to provide a trusted party or parties with enough information to, individually or collectively, gain access to some or all of your encrypted data.

Bitwarden has the concept of "Trusted Emergency Contacts" in their "Emergency Access" system. Essentially, it works by providing Bitwarden with the secret key material necessary to decrypt your vault encrypted to the trusted contact's public key. That contact can then send Bitwarden a "request for emergency access," after which, following a amount of time you specify, they are sent the encrypted secret key material. They than have access to view your entire vault.

1Password, on the other hand, lets you handle distribution of your secret key material. They provide something they call an "Emergency Kit", which essentially is a PDF containing your email, secret-key material, and a space to write out your Master Password, along with instructions to begin the recovery. Unlike Bitwarden, who acts as an escrow for your encrypted recovery data, 1Password lets you manually distribute your recovery material. Notably, the trusted party does not need to have a 1Password account, as the recovery material is a PDF that can be printed. Like Bitwarden, however, once the trusted party receives the Emergency Kit, they can then recover all of the material stored in your account.

An escrowed solution like Bitwarden is not ideal, as they potentially have the power to withhold your secret key material (although I strongly doubt they would ever do so unless somehow legally compelled to). The one benefit this has is that you retain the power to prevent the secret key material from being sent to them in the event that they try to abuse it. 1Password's PDF with a hand-written master password seems like a better solution in terms of resiliency, but is theoretically more susceptible to abuse. Ultimately, which of these two solutions is better comes down to how much you trust your cloud provider compared to how much you trust your emergency contacts.

One third way to solve this is to require multiple trusted parties to collectively agree to access your password manager. Changing the number and trustworthiness of those parties can help you adjust that ratio of "resiliency against loss" to "abuse by trusted parties."

Can we do better?

Rather than sticking with established options, I've decided to start working on my own password manager, ciphey. The goal is to explore what cryptography exists out there that can meet the properties listed above in a simple and understandable manner.

The project is still in its exploratory stages, so any feedback is welcome!