Security, passwords, and end users

Note: I started this entry two years ago and it's been sitting in my drafts folder ever since.  However, while the links might not be news anymore, the underlying issue is the same.  So I cleaned it up for another From The Archives entry.

A while back, there was a story going around about how the guy who invented the password strength rules that you see all over the web now regrets it.  That made me think about how we approach these kinds of issues and the advice we give to non-technical users.

Security is one of those areas of computing where there are a lot of cargo cults.  Relatively few people, even among IT professionals, seem to have a good handle on how to secure their systems.  So they rely on guidelines like these from the "experts", often following them blindly without any real understanding of the rationale.

And you can't really blame them - security is hard.  Even knowing what you need to defend against can be a tall order.  And with some of the biggest companies in the world being compromised left and right (for example, the Equifax hack, which should scare the heck out of you if it doesn't already), it's clear that this is not a resource problem that you can just buy your way out of.  Not even big tech companies are immune, so what chance does the average user have?

Well, unfortunately, for things like the Equifax breach, the average user doesn't have much to say about it.  Once a third-party has your personal information, you really have no choice but to rely on them to secure it.  And if they don't do a good job, well...you're sorta just out of luck.  I mean, you can always sue them, but let's be realistic: for private individuals, the amount of time and money required to do that is prohibitive.  It's cheaper and less painful to just absorb the loss and get on with your life.

Passwords are a different story, though.  Those are one of the few pieces of security that are (mostly) under the control of the user.  So we as professionals can offer some guidance there.  And if the top passwords revealed from various database breaches are any indication, we should offer some.

These days, there's really only one piece of advice that matters: get a password manager and use it for everything.  I like KeePass, but 1Password, LastPass, and a number of other good programs are available.  These days we all have more website logins than we can realistically remember, so it's impossible to follow the old advice of using strong passwords AND not reusing them AND not writing them down.  By using a password manager, we compromise on the "not writing it down" part and write down our passwords securely so that we can keep them strong and unique without making our lives difficult.

Of course, there will always be a few passwords that you just need to remember.  For instance, the master password for your password manager.  For these, the standard advice is to use long passwords containing number, letters, and special characters.  Probably the easiest way to do this and still keep the password memorable is to use a passphrase.  So rather than one word, use a short phrase containing several words and insert some punctuation or other special characters.  For example, the password Bob has _17_ "Cats"! isn't that hard to remember, but it's 20 characters long and  contains letters, numbers, capital and lower-case letters, punctuation, and spaces.  Yeah, it's harder to type and remember than "12345", but it's way easier than something like "UD09BhbjH7" and it fulfills the complexity requirements.

For more important accounts, you can also do things like enabling two-factor authentication, which adds another layer of security.  Typically this involves sending a code to your phone via text message or an app like Google Authenticator and entering that when you log in.  Even this isn't fool-proof (see SIM swapping scams), but it's one more hoop that someone trying to access your account has to jump through.

So forget the annoying rules about changing passwords every month and things like that.  Pick a handful of good passwords for the stuff you really need to type out and just use a password manager for everything else.  There's no reason to remember a bajillion obscure bits of information if you don't need to.  After all, that's why we have computers in the first place.

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