A Frank Discussion About Password Security

beat-a-dead-horseYou, dear reader, are a responsible password user with perfect password hygiene:

  • You always use a password with a mix of letters, numbers and special characters.  You never use a pet’s name, an anniversary date or “password123.”
  • You never write your password down and leave the note in an unsecured location.
  • You never use the same password twice. You would never use the same password for a banking site as an online newsletter.
  • You strictly follow all password policies handed down by your business, organization and other entities.
  • You never enter your password into anything but a trusted login window that you are certain has not been hijacked by a guy named “l33t PETE.”

Congratulate yourself on your mastery and discipline in the area of password security! If you do not adhere to the list above, we have some work to do. Each point above has thousands of cautionary tales. Did you know…

  • Passwords used online since early March have the potential to have been stolen by a HeartBleed attack.
  • Password guessing (brute force) attacks steal millions of accounts on the Internet every year.
  • Insider threats from coworkers and untrustworthy janitorial services can turn that password on the post-it under your keyboard into a disaster.
  • Once a big site like LivingSocial gets infiltrated and has passwords stolen, the hackers turn around and try those same passwords on banking sites, shopping sites, etc.

Your internal dialogue is probably saying, “What’s the big deal with password security? No one wants access to my Facebook page or work email anyway.” Instead of trying to shame you into protecting against a threat that is hard to predict, here are three useful tips that will make you more secure and make passwords a little less awful:

Use a pass phrase and not a password. Instead of  “d0gFLEA$,” use, “My dog ROGER has no fleas!” There is no doubt which one is easier to remember, but which one is more secure? According to the Brute Force Password “Search Space” Calculator, the “dogFLEA$” password could be discovered within 18.62 hours through an online dictionary attack. “My dog ROGER has no fleas!,” on the other hand, would take 47 hundred trillion trillion centuries to discover through an offline dictionary attack. (Note: There are dictionary attacks that would be faster.)

Use a secure password manager. Instead of writing passwords down or storing them in an unprotected file, use one of the many secure password tools like KeePass. As long as the app uses encryption to save the password and makes you enter a password to unlock, it is much better than a post-it.

Separate passwords by the importance of what they protect. Your bank account should have a unique password, as should your corporate email account. If you are going to be lax, be lax with the things that are not important. Perhaps the password for your free newsletter account and the warranty site for your toaster can be the same.

Passwords are an annoying fact of life.  There are better ways to prove to computers you are who you say you are, but that is for another article.

Paul Hirsch is a Senior Network Engineer for Citon Computer Corp. If you have a question for Paul, use the form below. 

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