Free software password manager roundup

By Christine Lemmer-Webber on Sun 06 October 2013

So, I've had a goofy system that I homerolled for storing randomly generated passwords that I keep encrypted. Let's just say that it's... not ideal and doesn't scale. Really I should be using something that other people have written. So I decided to look around at my options. Here seems to be the best survey of things I could find:

  • lastpass: Irony of putting this first is also the reason in some ways it's first: this is NOT an option, because it's proprietary. That's a non-starter for me already, but it should be an extra non-starter post PRISM. I don't care if the LastPass people say they haven't been contacted/forced to hand over stuff; there's good proof that they could be forced into it. See LavaBit. And if they were forced to do so, you're essentially handing over all your stuff. Also, there's every potential of user stuff all being leaked at once. That's not security.

    Still, people seem to really like the feature set, so this gets a double mention here: it's something that I think is unacceptable/worthless to use, but maybe could be a source of inspiration to free software packages. I've been shown the way the program looks, and it does look and seem to function nicely. That's something free software packages should try to live up to: browser integration with auto form-filling, and a nice, friendly looking UI.

  • FireFox Sync: FireFox Sync is a really cool project; a "least authority" approach to storing passwords, and the fact that you can set up server-side storage of your passwords and have all your machines sync together seems pretty neat, especially because Mozilla can't even read your data. That's pretty exciting.

    However, what advantage would I get of this over setting up my own password sync with something like git-annex? And does it really do much useful for non-browser-things? It's hard for me to tell.

    Still, even though I think it's not for me, I'm glad the project exists. I'm glad that Mozilla took the right way of doing the "even we can't see your data" thing, and I hope that post-PRISM they see the value of this work and keep it as-is!

  • spd: Let's face it, as a plaintext junkie, spd is more or less what I want in a sense... a simple single-file gpg-encrypted password manager. Seems perfect! I could just sync it across machines with git-annex. (And syncing with git-annex, actually, is probably how I want to sync across everything.) It's minimal, and what's extra cool is that it's a good fit for an organization that needs to share passwords; maybe the sysadmins can access X and Y, and the PR people can access Y and Z. spd handles that, and with a simple file format... I think that's pretty awesome. And check out the screenshot on the site. It's so cool and terminal'y, and I like that you can copy-pasta from a terminal, someone can be sitting behind you, and not see what your password... while it still being terminal based! Nice.

    There's just one problem: there's no browser integration. I've been coming to think that browser integration is probably pretty necessary these days to keep up with the massive number of passwords we have to have without reusing the same shitty ones over and over. So, there's that.

    Maybe a browser extension could be added; I don't have the time to write it sadly. Still, the format seems very simple, and probably this is the closest to the kind of system I want on a technical level.

  • pass: Okay so pass is similar to spd, simple, and probably a good solution if you're a command line nerd. I'm still sayin' it could use browser integration.

    It's also apparently written in bash, and just mostly wraps gpg, which I suppose makes it the "git porcelain" of password managers.

    And speaking of git, it does have nice integration with git, though committing passwords (even encrypted) seems a bit weird to me (git-annex seems to make more sense though I have a hard time explaining why I want to drop my history). Maybe more troublesome is if someone gets access to your repo, they can see where all your passwords are, since the usernames / places are just directories. But maybe you don't care about that part being leaked?

  • keepass / keepass2: keepass is free software, and it's had quite a bit of adoption. It seems well used, tested, and liked, and best of all, there's a few browser extensions available... keefox looking the nicest of all of them. Also, it has a single-file db extension system, so that makes it fairly appealing.

    So what's the downsides? It's written in C# for one. Okay, it's still free software, and Mono does work, shut up Chris Webber, don't be ridiculous. But it really feels very windows-y and out of place, not least of all because one of the major UI pieces says "Windows" on it and all of the UI components kind of look like they don't fit totally on my GNOME desktop. The UI also just feels very cumbersome/kludgey so far (it feels a bit like a GNOME 1 or Windows 95 "power user" UI application, if you get my drift), though admittedly I haven't given it much time. Still, of all of these, it probably has the closest to all of the features I've said I want / asked for.

  • KeePassX: KeePassX seems to be the crowd favorite amongst GNU/Linux users. It's much like KeePass but written in QT and C++. So I guesss that reduces my anti-C# bigotry. However, there's no browser extensions. Why not use spd at that point?

    The UI does feel much nicer in GNOME though (and certainly it would be in KDE too). Apparently there's an "autotype" feature, but it's based on the window's title... that seems like a hack... but better than nothing?

  • KeePassC / kppy: Okay, looks pretty cool, a curses based tool using the KeePass 1.X database scheme, Python 3 based, even has a server? No browser integration, but looks promising, as it does have a server... maybe one could be implemented from there.

    However there's some weird code smells in KeePassC, like changing directory to [/var/empty/]{.title-ref} even if it doesn't exist. There's also a kppy which KeePassC uses, which is a general purpose python library to edit such things.

    Maybe a decent base to build things from?

  • GNOME SeaHorse: So, GNOME provides integrated encryption support via a program called SeaHorse. I like GNOME integration, thus I think I'd like this. However, there's also no browser extensions here, and I have a hard time figuring out whether or not I could nicely sync things across machines via git-annex and friends, so... hm.

  • Encrypted plaintext files: Okay, plaintext files plus GPG. It works, right? Except, also no browser integration, and also anyone sitting behind you can read your passwords. Let's stop pretending this is an option.

  • Encrypted org-mode files: Several ways to do it and actually it is probably a little bit less terrible than a plaintext + gpg file: the expansion of sections means you can navigate a bit better, maybe not expose all at once.... hm, you could maybe even hide the passwords with some custom elisp + font locking!

    Okay, except wait, still no browser integration, and I need to stop building systems that work just for me and nobody else in the universe in Emacs + OrgMode. Heh.

There's other options too, but they all seem to have the same problems as the above, or worse.

It really looks like keepass2 + keefox is the best solution that exists yet, but let's be honest... it's not a good solution! It speaks totally to the traditional complaint of encryption tools in free software: they work, we know how to use them in theory, and yet wheen you try to bring them to the end user, they aren't a very pleasant UI experience.

That said, I'd be willing to take a pleasant experience that wasn't really good for everyone, a-la spd, if I could get browser integration... but that's probably admitting I'm not part of the general solution!

EDITS: Added KeePassC and pass. Toned down the KeePassC exuberance after I actually tried it.

EDIT AGAIN: After trying a bunch of things, I'm currently happy with something completely not on this list at all: assword. The name makes it hard to take seriously, but it's great and elegant. Bind "assword gui" to shift-ctrl-p, and it's the simplest system possible: give it a string, and it either makes a new password, which it pastes, or it pastes whatever string you had associated with that string. So. Great. And the technology couldn't be simpler.