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Evan Schuman: Starbucks caught storing mobile passwords in clear text

In a case of convenience for users trumping security, Starbucks has been storing the passwords for its mobile-payment app, along with geolocation data, in clear text

By Evan Schuman
January 15, 2014 11:09 AM ET

Computerworld - Editor's note: Starbucks later responded to the security issues raised in this column and late on Jan. 16 updated its app.

The Starbucks mobile app, the most used mobile-payment app in the U.S., has been storing usernames, email addresses and passwords in clear text, Starbucks executives confirmed late on Tuesday (Jan. 14). The credentials were stored in such a way that anyone with access to the phone can see the passwords and usernames by connecting the phone to a PC. No jailbreaking of the phone is necessary. And that clear text also displays an extensive list of geolocation tracking points (latitude, longitude), a treasure trove of security and privacy gems for anyone who steals the phone.

The issue appears to be an example of convenience trumping security. One of the reasons for the Starbucks mobile app's popularity is its extreme ease of use. Customers need only enter their password once when activating the payment portion of the app and then use the app to make unlimited purchases without having to key in the password or username again. (Only when adding money to the app is the password required.)

Starbucks could have chosen not to store the password on the phone, but users would then be forced to key in their username and password every time they wanted to use the app to make a purchase.

"A company like Starbucks has to make the choice between usability to drive adoption and the potential for misuse or fraud," said Charlie Wiggs, general manager and senior vice president for U.S. markets at mobile vendor Mozido. "Starbucks has opted to make it very convenient. They just have to make sure that their comfort doesn't overexpose their consumers and their brand."

"Yes, it does surprise me," said Gartner security analyst Avivah Litan. "I would have expected more out of Starbucks. At least they should have informed consumers."

And apparently Starbucks could have done that. Two executives -- Starbucks CIO Curt Garner and Starbucks Chief Digital Officer Adam Brotman -- said in a telephone interview that they have known for an unspecified period of time that the credentials were being stored in clear text. "We were aware," Brotman said. "That was not something that was news to us."

The easy visibility of passwords was first discovered by security researcher Daniel Wood, who said he tried contacting Starbucks in mid-November. After repeatedly being transferred to customer service in the course of almost two months, he published some of his research for the security community on Monday (Jan. 13).

Starbucks is downplaying the potential for customers to be victimized and claims that it has made (vague and unspecified) changes that alleviate the problem. Brotman said the issue should no longer be a concern because "we have security measures in place now related to that" and "we have adequate security measures in place now." He declined to say what those security measures were, but said that customers' "usernames and passwords are safe," because Starbucks has added "extra layers of security."



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