In a recent PCMag survey on passwords, only 24 percent of respondents reported using a password manager. The rest of you have a serious problem. It’s almost certainly true that you are using passwords that are easy to remember, which makes them easy to crack. Furthermore, the plethora of sites you visit that require logins probably means that you recycle the same passwords over and over, too. Maybe you think that securing your online accounts is unimportant, or too much trouble. Trust us, that’s not the case. Using bad passwords can have serious consequences.
Even if you’re using the best password manager, it doesn’t guarantee the safety of your accounts—not if you use the password manager to remember those same old, tired passwords. You have to get down in the trenches and switch out the bad passwords for new, stronger ones.
That survey mentioned above revealed that 35 percent of PCMag readers never change their passwords, unless forced to do so by a breach. In general, that’s not such a bad thing. The National Institute of Standards and Technology no longer recommends changing passwords every 90 days. NIST now recommends using long passphrases like “Correct-Horse-Battery-Staple” and changing them only when necessary. But if you’re using terrible passwords, “when necessary” means right now.
Just what makes a bad password? We’ll look at some of the attributes of terrible passwords, and then we’ll give you some pointers on how to do passwords the right way.
Stay Out of the Dictionary
Every few months one news outlet or another posts a list of the worst passwords. We see a lot of easy-to-type options, like 123456 and 12345678 and qwerty. Easy for you? Sure. But also easy for hackers to crack. Other common (and poor) passwords consist of simple dictionary words. We’ve seen baseball, monkey, and starwars in the list of worst passwords. These, too, are easy to crack.
Some secure websites lock down after a set number of wrong password attempts, but many don’t. For those with no bad-guess lockout, hackers can cross a list of email addresses with a list of popular passwords and set up an automated process to keep trying combinations until they get in.
A properly secured website doesn’t store your password anywhere. Instead, it runs the password through a hashing algorithm, a kind of one-way encryption. The same input always produces the same output, but there’s no way to get back to the original password from the resulting hash. If the password you type hashes to the same value that’s stored, you get access. Even if hackers capture the site’s user data, they don’t get passwords, just hashes.
But smart hackers can crack weak passwords even when they’re hashed, if they know what hashing function the site used. They start by running a huge dictionary of common passwords through the hashing function. Then they look for the resulting hashes in the captured data. Each match is a cracked password. Sites with the very best security enhance the hash function with a technique called salting, which makes this kind of table-based cracking impossible, but why take the risk? Just stay out of the dictionary.
A friend once told me her perfect password: 1qaz2wsx3edc4rfv. She could “type” it by just sliding a finger down four slanted columns of the keyboard. It was so perfect, she used it everywhere. And that was a big mistake.
Hardly a week goes by without news of a breach at some company or website, exposing thousands or millions of usernames and passwords. Smart victims change their passwords immediately. Those who ignore the problem may find themselves locked out of their own accounts after the hackers reset the password.
Those hackers know that all too many people recycle their passwords. Once they find a working username and password pair, they try the same credentials on other sites. You may not be so worried about losing access to your Club Penguin account, but if you used the same login on your bank’s website, you’ve got big trouble.
It gets worse. If someone else gets control of your email account, they can first lock you out by changing the password. Then they can break into your other accounts by having a password reset link emailed to that account. Worried yet?
Don’t Get Personal
Using personal information as the basis for your passwords is awfully tempting, but it’s a bad idea. Chances are good your dog’s name appears in the dictionaries hackers use for brute-force attacks. Other possibilities such as the initials and birthdate of a family member probably won’t fall to a brute-force attack, but if someone wants to hack your account specifically, that personal data can fuel a trial-and-error guessing attack.
Don’t think for a minute that your personal details are private. There are dozens of sites people can use to find details about anybody: address, birthdate, marital status, and more. Your social media posts can be another source of personal info, especially if you haven’t properly secured your accounts. A determined hacker (or a nosy neighbor) can probably guess any password that you build based on your own data.
Close the Back Door
If you’re not using a password manager, you’ve surely experienced forgetting the password for a site. It’s all too common, which is why virtually every login page includes a “Forgot your password?” link. Some sites send a reset link to your email address, while others let you reset the password after answering your security questions. And that opens a back door to anyone wanting to hack your account.
Most sites offer abysmal options for security questions. What is your mother’s maiden name? Where did you go to high school? What was your first job? As noted, your personal life is an open book to anyone with internet searching skills. When possible, ignore the preset questions. Create your own question, with a unique answer that you’ll always remember but that nobody else could guess.
It’s harder when the site doesn’t let you define your own questions. In that case, your best bet is to use a memorable answer that’s a total lie. My mother’s maiden name is Obama. I went to school at Communist Martyrs High. For my first job, I was a lion tamer. There is an element of risk, since you might forget which lie you chose. I would suggest storing these oddball answers as secure notes in your password manager…but if you were using a password manager it would have remembered the password for you.
What to Do Now That You Care
I hope I’ve convinced you that using common passwords is a rotten idea, as building passwords from personal information. And even the best strong, random password becomes a liability if you use it all over the place. If you’re ready to take action, here are some starting points:
- Use a password manager.
- Switch to a better password manager.
- Remember an insanely secure master password for your password manager.
- Take advantage of a random password generator to upgrade your old, bad passwords.
- You could even create your own random password generator in Excel.
- Enable two-factor authentication wherever available.
If a secure site doesn’t take care of security, you could still lose that site’s credentials to a data breach, but by making all your passwords long, strong, and unique, you’ve done everything you can to protect your online accounts.
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