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After dealing with Optus phone support  in regard to a routine request for a password change I have been thinking about better ways of managing password changes for a large ISP. The first criteria is that the user must have a password that is difficult to brute-force attack at all times. Changing a password to a supposedly temporary value that can be easily guessed (such as “changeme“) is never acceptable. The next criteria is that the help-desk operator should be trusted as little as possible and it would be ideal if they never knew the password.
One possibility that occurred to me is that each bill could have a six-digit pseudo-random number printed on it. This number could be used as an alternate password. When a customer calls up because they lost their password they almost always have their last bill (this is why they print the number for phone support on each bill). The help-desk operator could then push a button on a web based form that makes this pseudo-random number be their new password, thus the help-desk operator would not know the new password and the user would also have it printed out clearly which avoids the confusion from having a password read out in a foreign accent.
Another possibility is to have the password change infrastructure integrated with the CTI  system, then the help-desk operator could push a button and have the computer dictate the password without the help-desk operator being able to listen in.
There will always be corner cases where a help-desk operator has to change the password, but if these are rare because the automated system handles most cases then the potential for damage would be limited. Of course it would also be a really good idea to do some statistical tracking of the number of password change requests performed by each operator and investigate those who do significantly more than average. In the past AOL has experienced a variety of security problems related to trojans  which probably would have been discovered by such analysis.
Another possible option is that customers with mobile phones could have their new password sent to them by SMS. It’s quick, easy, cheap when done in bulk, and is much harder to intercept than most methods that might be used for transferring passwords.
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