Security, Passwords and Password Managers

In this post, I want to talk about staying secure online. This is a less technical post that those I often write. It’s aimed at my family and non-technical friends, who perhaps don’t appreciate why security online is so important; why choosing unique, strong passwords is important; and why password managers are for everyone, and not just socially-awkward sysadmin code monkeys like me. If you think "… nobody’s going to be trying to hack my Gmail account …" then read on!

A lot of people make the same mistake when it comes to their online security: reusing the same password (or a similar password) with all of their online accounts. To keep your accounts and your data safe online, you should use long, complicated, and unique passwords for every account. But how is the average person meant to remember all of those passwords? The short answer is you don’t, you let a password manager do that for you. I use a password manager, and other than a few special cases, I couldn’t tell you what any of my passwords are! But what I could tell you is that most of them are over 16 characters long (that’s a letter, a number, or some other punctuation symbol), don’t actually make any real words, and are a combination of lower- and upper-case letters, numbers and other symbols.

I think there are a few misconceptions about the various security breaches you may have heard about. It’s possible that someone close to you may want to compromise e.g. your Gmail account. For that reason, you should make sure any passwords you use don’t contain words or phrases that mean something to you: your pet’s name; your spouse’s birthday or your wedding anniversary; your mother’s maiden name etc. However, while that’s generally good advice, it’s actually incredibly unlikely that someone close to you would try to to compromise your online security. In fact, it’s incredibly unlikely that anybody would specifically target you!

What is far more likely to happen is that a computer program is written or acquired by some miscreant, or ill-informed script kiddy , and an attack is orchestrated against a site from a hijacked computer somewhere. The details of how that may happen are outside the scope of this post. In this case the attacker may simply automate the process of trying to log in to some site by cycling through combinations of words, making incremental guesses at user names and passwords. This sort of attack is often referred to as brute force: there’s no sophistication or informed guesswork involved, it’s just a matter of trial and error. Crucial to avoiding being the victim of this sort of random attack is the use of long, complicated and unique passwords. Attackers often use dictionaries of words. The longer the password, the more expensive in terms of time and computer resources it is to guess the password. Avoiding common dictionary words makes this even harder because whole sections of a password can’t be tried.

Great, so armed with this information, why not just come up with a really long, complicated password that you can remember, and use that with all of your online accounts? If an attacker has compromised one account, they can potentially compromise others: it doesn’t matter how complicated your password is if you use the same password everywhere, and it’s been compromised. As I said before, an attacker probably hasn’t targeted you specifically, but if they have managed to find e.g. an email address and password that gives them access to an account, they’ll likely try to use those same credentials on other popular web sites.

So in conclusion, we need long, complicated and unique passwords for all of your online accounts. So we need a tool to store those passwords securely for us, and ideally, to generate those passwords. If we don’t need to memorise such strong passwords, why not generate password that aren’t particularly memorable! That’s where a password manager comes in. There are quite a few of them on the market: some of them free and open-source, some of them come with a small financial outlay. The ones you should consider have a few common characteristics though.

But isn’t this putting all my eggs in one basket? Sure, you’re securing all of your complicated, unique passwords with a single password. But that single password, the one you remember, can and should be very complex, but you only need remember that one password. You should also change that password regularly to minimise the risk of your vault being compromised. Your password vault is also not sitting there, publicly available as a popular website that would be targeted by attackers. You might use an online service to sync your encrypted password database between devices, but that service doesn’t know your master password. Attackers are far more likely to compromise any number of websites than your password vault.

There are a lot of password managers out there, but I’d recommend 1Password for OSX and iOS devices; KeePass for Windows, or KeePassX for Linux (and OSX). There are also web based services such as LastPass or Dashlane

You can also further enhance your security online by taking advantage of Multi Factor Authentication (MFA) or Two Factor Authentication (2FA) on services that offer this feature. The idea of MFA is to increase security by requiring two pieces of information to sign in (in addition to a username): something you know, and something you have. In this case the thing you know, is your password. The thing you have is a special time-limited code that is generated, on a per-account basis, by an application on your phone. Such applications are Google Authenticator and Authy. When you enable MFA, you often scan a QR code with your phone. This code (which changes usually every minute) allows your phone to synchronise some secret bits of information with the website you’re accessing. From that point forward, your phone can generate codes that the website you’re accessing can check, in addition to your password. If an attacker compromised your password, it would be very difficult for them to also compromise your phone and the time-limited codes on it.

So as part of your New Year’s Resolutions, please resolve to be more security conscious online. Start using a password manager. Start changing all your passwords to something complex and unique, for each account you use. And where possible, use MFA!


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