If you see me in person, you’ll know that this is something I rant about from time to time. But that’s only because people consistently put themselves and their friends at risk, needlessly, and sometimes those friends include me. So let me be abundantly clear:
If you’re reading this, there is at least a 95% chance that your passwords aren’t good enough. You should fix them. Today.
Let’s talk about what what we mean by “good enough”. A good password needs to be:
- Long. Some of you are still using passwords that are shorter than 8 characters. The length of a password is important because it reduces the risk of a robot “brute forcing” it. Suppose a robot can guess 1000 passwords a second, and your password uses only single-case letters and numbers. If you have a 4-character password, it’ll be lucky to last quarter of an hour. A 6-character password might last a week and a half. At 8-characters, it might last a few decades. Probably less, if your password makes one of the other mistakes, below. And the robots used by crackers are getting faster and faster, so the longer, the better. My shortest password is around 12 characters long, these days.
- Complex. Remember how long an 8-character password lasts against a “brute force” attack? If you’re only using single-case letters, you’re reducing that by almost a third. Mix it up a bit! Use upper and lower case letters, and numbers, as standard. Consider using punctuation, too. There’s no legitimate reason for a website to demand that you don’t have a long and complex password, so if one does seem to have unreasonable requirements: write to the owners and threaten to take your business elsewhere if they don’t get with the times.
- Random. If your password is, is based on, or contains a dictionary word (in any language), a name or brand name, a date, a number plate or (heaven forbid) a national insurance number, it’s not good enough. “Brute force” attacks like those described above are usually the second line of attack against properly-stored passwords: first, a robot will try every word, name or date that it can think of, with and without capitalisation and with numbers before and afterwards. Many will also try common phrases like “iloveyou” and “letmein”. WikiHow has a great suggestion about how to make “random” passwords that are easy to remember.
- Unique. Here’s the one that people keep getting wrong, time and time again. You should never, never, use the same password for multiple different services (and you should be very wary of using the same password for different accounts on the same service). This is because if a malicious hacker manages to get your password for one site, they can now start breaking into your accounts on other sites. Some people try to get around this by keeping two or three “levels” of passwords, for low-, medium-, and high-security uses. But even if a hacker gets access to all of your “low” security sites, that is (these days, frequently) still a huge amount of data they have with which to commit an identity theft.The other big reason to make sure your passwords are unique is that it makes it safer to share them, if the need arises. Suppose that for some reason you need to share a password with somebody else: it’s far safer for everybody involved if the password you share with them works only for the service you wanted to give them access to. Every person you trust is one more person who might (accidentally) expose it to a hacker by writing it down.Even if you have to memorise a complex “master” password and keep in your wallet a list of random “suffixes” that you append to this master password, different for each site, that’s a huge step forwards. It’s also a very basic level of two-factor authentication: to log in to your Twitter account, for example, you need your master password (which is in your head), plus the Twitter suffix to the password (which is written down in your wallet).
There’s been a wave of attacks recently against users of social networking websites: an attacker will break into an insecure web forum to get people’s email addresses and password, and then will try to log in to their webmail accounts and into social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) using those same credentials. When they get a “hit”, they’ll explore the identity of the victim, learning about their language patterns, who their friends are, and so on. Then they’ll send messages or start chats with their victim’s friends, claiming to be their victim, and claim some kind of crisis. They’ll often ask to borrow money that needs to be wired to them promptly. And then they’ll disappear.
In this interconnected world, it’s important that your passwords are good not only for your benefit, but for your friends too. So if you’re guilty of any of the “password crimes” above – if you have passwords that are short (under 8 characters), simple (don’t use a mixture of cases and include numbers), predictable (using dictionary words, names, dates, etc.: even if they include a number), or re-used (used in more than one place or for more than one site) – change your passwords today.
Here’s some resources to help you do it:
- WikiHow’s guide to choosing secure passwords.
- PCTools’ great random password generator.
- The top 500 worst passwords of all time – if yours is in here, it’s probably already been compromised.
- SuperGenPass – a very good way to use a strong, unique password for every website without having to remember multiple passwords. Free.
- KeePass – a great way to use a strong, unique password for every site and service without having to remember multiple passwords. Free.
- LastPass – another great way to use a strong, unique password for every site and service without having to remember multiple passwords. Free (or cheap, for the premium version).