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Inspired by the answer to this question:

Are there instances of Starfleet officers using the same authorization codes in more than one episode?

I wondered how these command codes secure anything.

Two codes that can setup the self destruction of the ship and override security are:

  • Janeway Pi 1-1-0
  • Tuvok pi alpha

So the command codes of Starfleet officers that enable the destruction of the ship are merely the name of the officer, the word "pi" and 3 to 5 numbers or letters. Nothing that would be considered in today’s world as a remotely secure password. Even a pin (4 numbers) is more secure than Janeway’s 1-1-0.

And on the other hand, after the code is used (and spoken out loud) the first time it is compromised if anybody is nearby and heard it.

So how can this code be secure? I'm sure the computer has other secure options to identifiy who is using the code. Does the code work only if the correct person uses it? If Kim uses the Janeway code to initialize sef destruction, will he get an access denied?

This questions answer seem to imply it:

How do command authorization codes work in Star Trek?

If so, then why use seemingly-worthless codes at all? Against what and how do they secure anything?

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    Don't forget that Starfleet vessels are very close to AI intelligence. The ship probably uses multi-factor identification; Not only the person's voice but also their physical presence. – Valorum Oct 19 '18 at 7:55
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    @Valorum although Data emulated Picard's voice with his command code... so that'd invalidate the physical verification thing... – Jon Clements Oct 19 '18 at 8:10
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    @JonClements - One would assume that Data is sufficiently skilled that he can fool the computer in other ways. He's on the bridge and fiddling with a computer before he gives the code – Valorum Oct 19 '18 at 8:12
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    If we take it from a modern day computer security point of view, authentication and authorisation are two separate things... you need to identify yourself first (authenticate) possibly in this case just by voice print - then once that's done you have certain privileges and some of those are listed as "ok" so it just happens being "logged in" - others are more "oh gosh - that's potentially going to do a lot of damage/security critical" - so you have to throw in an authorisation code on top to say "yes - I know - just do it" - much like a "You clicked delete - did you really want to?" popups. – Jon Clements Oct 19 '18 at 8:34
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    “If Kim uses the Janeway code to initialize sef destruction, will he get an access denied?” — the kid was an ensign for seven years. Virtually everything he does gets an “access denied”. – Paul D. Waite Oct 19 '18 at 8:44
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They secure things well because they are not the only barrier

There are essentially three different types of factors in authentication:

  • Something you know (eg. password)
  • Something you have (eg. key)
  • Something you are (eg. fingerprint)

Two factors are inherently stronger than one, and even if an individual factor may be weak on it's own, combining it with others can still be sufficiently strong.

In Star Trek, one factor that seems almost ubiquitous across the board is voice authentication. We see it used in every instance of self-destruct sequence initiation shown here:

So at the very least, you're going to need a voice match, which would be your vocal sound (something you are) produced by something capable of producing those sounds (something you have) and using your unique speech patterns (something you know). I imagine there's alternatives to this in the event a person is unable to speak (while we've not seen it used before to my knowledge, it would likely require other forms of verification in its place).

Besides voice, there are three other apparent types of verification we see as well (of which at least one is always in use):

  • Security code
  • Hand print verification
  • Additional user verification (more people verifying)

In addition to the above, we know location can also play a factor, as seen in the following video (Data locks command access to the bridge):

And lastly, we already know that combadges can track location of their owners to the ship (which on its own could help confirm a voice match). But per the following, they can also communicate identity to starfleet computers for logging purposes (acting at a "key" of sorts):

Starfleet combadges silently provided identification to starship computers. For example, when a person wearing a combadge accessed a certain console, the computer logged the individual's identification to that access. (TNG: "The Drumhead")

Combining all of the above, including implied measures like location tracking and combadge authentication, and it appears that we actually have pretty comprehensive security coverage. At this point, we can stop looking at the command code as the main barrier, and start looking at it as a small part to the whole, more akin to a pin code, to help avoid certain specific attack vectors.

Of all the other factors above, it is the only one that requires something you know. So if someone were to take over your body, clone you, etc, they would still be lacking in full control over the ship.

While the code may seem short in combating the above, consider that the ship itself may not be so forgiving to multiple wrong guesses. Likewise, a longer code is harder to memorize than a small 3-4 character code that changes periodically, and officers would be less likely to change it frequently. Longer codes are possible to designate as we see Data do in the second video, but at that point he's combating all the captain's other authentication abilities to override and potentially break Data's own elevated access.

All this to say, none of those factors on their own are sufficient to protect a starship. but together they are fairly robust against multiple vectors, and far beyond the level most present day security systems.

  • Ok. I accepted the answer. Well elaborated.:-) But in real Life, even if the ATMs would scan my iris, my fingerprint and check my voice I would not choose such a stupid pin code like alpha-1-0-1 as additional (nearly worthless) authentication.. – Hothie Dec 5 '18 at 10:01
  • @Hothie Isn't that exactly what we do today in the real world though? A card with a 4 digit PIN is the standard convention for withdrawing money, and yet it's considered generally secure (if it weren't, no one would use cards at all). On their own they're useless, but together they form a sufficient affirmation of identity for everyday use. All the more for Star Trek's additional verifications. – Mwr247 Dec 5 '18 at 15:25
  • It's not the fact that they use a 4-digit code that bothers me. Yes, we do exactly the same. It's that all the codes are like 1-0-0-0 or 1-0-0-1 or something like that. I would send a card back to the bank if they tell me it's pin is 0001. – Hothie Dec 12 '18 at 12:27
  • late comment is late, but voy:s2,ep20 (Investigations) Neelix does exactly this: he hears an engineer use a code and then uses it to log in to Toms personal computer files. No messing with the computer and clearly his own voice, and not in the same location as the other guy - all that's needed seems to be the code. He did nothing but repeat a code he heard in engineering to override the computers lockout. This invalidates the 3 part authorisation as there is evidence that all you need is the code – Matt Aug 23 at 20:49

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