MODERN CYBERSECURITY, DONE with properly paranoid best practices, requires meeting some tough demands: Carry a physical two-factor key to plug in and authenticate yourself on a new computer, but if you lose or break that tiny piece of plastic you could be locked out of your accounts. Use different, totally unguessable passwords for every website, without repeating them or writing them down. And even if you opt for a password manager—as you should—you’ll need to remember a long master password for years, or risk losing access to the rest of them.
Or you could reduce all of that complexity to a single roll of 25 dice into a plastic box. This week Stuart Schechter, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, is launching DiceKeys, a simple kit for physically generating a single super-secure key that can serve as the basis for creating all the most important passwords in your life for years or even decades to come. With little more than a plastic contraption that looks a bit like a Boggle set and an accompanying web app to scan the resulting dice roll, DiceKeys creates a highly random, mathematically unguessable key. You can then use that key to derive master passwords for password managers, as the seed to create a U2F key for two-factor authentication, or even as the secret key for cryptocurrency wallets. Perhaps most importantly, the box of dice is designed to serve as a permanent, offline key to regenerate that master password, crypto key, or U2F token if it gets lost, forgotten, or broken.
You just roll the dice,” says Schechter, who presented DiceKeys in a talk at the Usenix Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security last week and is now offering preorders of the kits on Crowd Supply for $25, expected to ship in January of next year. “Instead of having to enter a big secret when you want to do something that requires a super-strong password, you can just scan them in.”
In fact, Schechter intends for most DiceKeys users to only ever roll their set once. After shaking the keys in a bag, the user dumps them into their plastic box, then snaps the lid closed to permanently lock them into place. The user then scans the dice box with the DiceKeys app—currently a web app hosted at DiceKeys.app—that accesses their laptop, phone, or iPad camera. That app generates a cryptographic key based on the dice, checking the barcode-like symbols on the faces to ensure it interpreted the dice’s characters and orientation correctly. Despite the current version of the DiceKeys app being hosted on the web, Schechter says that it’s designed so that no data ever leaves the user’s device.
Thanks to the different numbers and letters on each key face as well as the dices’ orientations, the resulting arrangement has around 196 bits of entropy, Schechter says, meaning there are 2196 different possibilities for how the dice could be positioned. Schechter estimates that’s roughly as many possibilities as there are atoms in four or five thousand solar systems. “With modern technology, you can’t really build a computer big enough to guess this number without crushing yourself under its gravity,” he says.
After the dice are scanned, the app then offers to use the key it generates to derive an ultra-long, purely random passphrase that can be cut and pasted into a password manager as its master password. The DiceKeys app doesn’t store the key it creates from scanning the dice, the master password, or anything else. But crucially, it can regenerate that key and password on command by rescanning the dice box.
Schechter is also building a separate app that will integrate with DiceKeys to allow users to write a DiceKeys-generated key to their U2F two-factor authentication token. Currently the app works only with the open-source SoloKey U2F token, but Schechter hopes to expand it to be compatible with more commonly used U2F tokens before DiceKeys ship out. The same API that allows that integration with his U2F token app will also allow cryptocurrency wallet developers to integrate their wallets with DiceKeys, so that with a compatible wallet app, DiceKeys can generate the cryptographic key that protects your crypto coins too.
The cryptographic hashing scheme DiceKeys uses to generate its passwords and keys prevents anyone, like a rogue password manager or crypto wallet, from working backward to derive the user’s underlying DiceKeys key. So DiceKeys is meant to allow the user to generate and, if necessary, regenerate passwords and keys for lots of applications without any of them compromising the security of the others.
Schechter also argues that the plastic dice box is relatively future-proof. It’s more durable and harder to lose than a piece of paper with a password written on it. It’s “toddler-proof,” he says, and designed to withstand drops from the height of the tallest human. (Schechter says he’s working on a fireproof steel version too.) And while decades from now the world may have moved on from standards like Bluetooth and USB-C, the DiceKeys license allows the open-source community to maintain it; in the best-case scenario, it could continue working indefinitely.
Schechter describes DiceKeys as still in alpha testing, and its security for now isn’t perfect. Hosting the DiceKeys app on the web, for instance, leaves it vulnerable to hackers who might hijack the server that runs it to give themselves copies of the keys and passwords it generates. But Schechter says he’s building iOS and Android versions of the app that he hopes to have ready before DiceKeys ship to customers—an important security improvement, says Dan Boneh, a well-known professor of cryptography at Stanford who watched Schechter’s Usenix talk. “An app can be reverse-engineered to make sure it does what one expects. Presumably some security orgs would do that and report their findings to the rest of us,” Boneh wrote in an email to WIRED. “That can’t be done in the cloud.”
But otherwise, Boneh argues that DiceKeys “are a good way to guide users towards correct behavior.” It’s designed to make it far easier for people to use a password manager, for instance, a broadly recommended security practice since password managers allow users to generate strong, unique passwords for all their disparate accounts.
Despite the fact that DiceKeys will likely have the most initial appeal for the crypto and security communities, Schechter says he sees it as a tool for people who want to adopt password managers and U2F tokens, but are intimidated by the prospect of forgetting a master password or losing a U2F token. “This is to help people overcome those problems. It’s for everyday users,” Schechter says. “It’s definitely designed to make security more accessible to people, because it’s something they can understand. It’s a bunch of letters and digits in a box.”