Edward Thomson

Changing Titles in Google Authenticator

August 23, 2017  •  5:27 PM

Surely you know that the best practice for securing your accounts is to enable two-factor authentication:

When all that is between you and an attacker getting into your account is a single password, you’re running a risk that is far greater than what you need be taking. A password is one factor – “something you know”. Now if we add something you have such as your mobile phone and the email service verifies your identity when you first log on by sending an SMS to that thing you have, the security position of your email changes fundamentally.

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And hopefully you're using an application as your second factor, instead of text messages. Text messages may not work when you travel to foreign countries, but you're also reliant upon your wireless carrier to keep your data secure:

Instead, use TOTP (Time-based One-Time Pad) to get a six digit number from a local application. There are many applications that support TOTP, but I keep it old school, and use the Google Authenticator application.

The problem with the Google Authenticator app, though, is that it doesn't let you edit the title of a website (the "issuer") once you've set it up. So you end up with a number that's missing a title, and there's no good way to identify it.

Here, the first entry is obviously for my Microsoft account, but the second entry…? I have no idea what it's for:

Google Authenticator Missing a Title

Thankfully, TOTP is a published standard, so you can actually create - and then scan - your own QR code based on the secret number that you're given when you turn on two-factor authentication:

Facebook 2FA Enablement

The QR code that you scan to set up a new account is generated by constructing a URL with the secret number and some metadata, and then encoding that with a QR generator. The format is:

otpauth://totp/account_name?secret=secret_key&issuer=Website_Title

The account_name - as the name suggests - reflects the name of your account on the website. This is your username or email address, generally. Google Authenticator shows this as the second line of the key.

The secret_key is the secret key that the web site gives you when you enable TOTP. (In the example above, it's XXXX ABCD XXXX ABCD).

Finally, the issuer is the name of the website itself. This is the larger header displayed above your key.

It's such a simple mechanism that you can just create a new URL with those values and then use your favorite QR generating tool to create a QR code for your custom URL. (Remember to URL-encode any of your values!)

If you don't have a QR generator (I didn't) then you can install the very simple qrencode package and generate a QR code into an image file.

Better still, you can specify ANSI as the output type:

% qrencode -t ANSI otpauth://totp/ethomson@edwardthomson.com?secret=XXXXABCDXXXXABCD&issuer=My%20Title

And it will dump a QR code straight to your console:

QR on the Console

Now you just point Google Authenticator at your terminal window, and you can see that it adds a secret with a custom title of "My Title":

Google Authenticator with a Custom Title

Voila!