Are password rules just bad magic?

'Eye-of-newt' rules may not help, consultant says

Readers continue to flood us with suggestions for creating and remembering strong passwords, as our challenge continues. However, at least one reader believes the conventional wisdom on passwords is wrong.

Blogger William Cheswick, in his own report on the password theft that prompted our original article, noted the three commonly accepted rules of a good password:

  • It should contain at least eight characters.
  • It should contain a mix of four different types of characters (uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numerals and punctuation symbols).
  • It should not be a name, a slang word, or any word in the dictionary.

"I call these eye-of-newt password rules, because the recipes are reminiscent of magical potions," Cheswick wrote.

Another common rule – to never write passwords down – seems to be fading, he added. "Previous admonitions against writing down passwords contemplated local attacks – people reading your Post-it notes on your terminal in the office for example," he wrote. "Most attacks come from distant malefactors, and they will never see your terminal. But do beware of leaks to family members, like curious teenagers or a divorcing spouse."

However, Cheswick said, the rules against using words, or requiring mixing of character types, are also a lot less relevant in today's security climate.

"Dictionary attacks are no longer a common threat to most Internet users. Passwords are usually obtained by keyboard sniffing software or phishing Web sites. Under these threat models, all the eye-of-newt rules are what many users suspected: annoying, tedious bureaucratic rules that don't actually help security!" he wrote.

For example, the 32 million passwords that security firm Imperva analyzed (reported in our earlier stories) were stolen, not guessed. "It didn't matter what kind of password the 32 million people chose: the bad guys got all of them, strong and weak, for reasons beyond the users' control," Cheswick said. "It was the site administrators who screwed up."

Cheswick offers two ideas to improve security without using eye-of-newt:

1. One-time passwords: These require tokens – which may be hardware or software – to generate the passwords. However, they're valid for only one log-in, so if someone steals the password, it will be useless. "This has been tried, but it hasn't caught on. It seems to me that it is time to try again," Cheswick said.

2. The "don't be a moron" rule: Create systems that lock an account after a small number of incorrect tries to log in. The users are then responsible to not be morons, Cheswick said. Feel free to use a common word as a password, but not one that's obviously connected to you – no names of pets or spouses, no passwords that match the name of the site they're for, no sequences of numbers.

The combination of putting a little thought into the password and having accounts that will lock after a few wrong guesses allows users to create simple and memorable passwords, while minimizing the risk of unauthorized access.

Meanwhile, your password ideas continued to flow in.

Some readers suggested technological aids, devices that can securely store passwords, to be retrieved when needed.

"A truly strong password is only used on a single system and not reused," wrote one anonymous commenter. "It is impossible to do that consistently across the hundreds of accounts that I personally have. My solution to this is to only have easily memorable passwords for often (daily) used accounts. For all other accounts I use a password generator and storage utility called KeePass. This utility securely generates and stores very complex nonsensical passwords for most of my accounts. When I need it, I open the store with a very secure memorable password and then retrieve the password for use."

Jay Daughtry, from Potomac Falls, Va., said the method that a coach signals the next play to a batter is useful in creating passwords. "The coach could make all kinds of gestures, but until he hit the 'key,' none of it mattered," Daughtry wrote. "The key is the sign that says the next sign is really what is to be done (steal, bunt, etc.). So, how does this relate to the creation of passwords? Start all of your passwords with the same combination of characters and use at least two to three of the requirements (lower case letters, upper case letters, numbers, special signs). What follows this key can be a simple word and/or number that is easy to memorize."

John in San Diego takes a Borscht Belt approach: "I use the initial letters of punchlines to corny old jokes and numbers from one of my 39 'permanent' street addresses. 'That was no lady, that was my wife' becomes Twnltwmw_1725."

Sandy Ingrassia, from Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado, offered a simple algorithm: "My idea is to take a phone number you have memorized (not your own), to include area code. Then you could start with the number, then on the phone pick a letter of the next number and use that as a capital, then go to the keyboard and add a special character for another number and so on. Just make sure that you keep a rhythm (i.e. number, capital, symbol, lower case, repeat) so you remember the order."

Keep your comments coming, and let us know if you agree or disagree with Cheswick's thoughts as well. We'll hold the contest open until May 24, and the submitter of the best password idea – as judged by the Government Computer News editors – wins a T-shirt. 

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

Reader Comments

Mon, Jun 21, 2010 Mehdi ND

The biggest problem is caused by everyone thinking that the application they create is the only one in the world that requires a password - at work, I have a list of 14 applications (all web based), that all require their own password, and each app has its own set of rules. The worst ones are the ones that require EXACTLY 16 characters, 2 uppercase, 2 numbers, 2 special characters... and not a single one of these systems accepts spaces, quotes or (back)slashes. I remember one specific app that had those requirements, PLUS a profanity filter added for good measure. Seems to me like the people thinking up password rules make a couple of very obvious mistakes, the first one of which is actually saving the password as is, no hashing, no encrypting, the second one being that they don't realize that if you make the rules easier to follow, you can increase security, as opposed to the current system of adding more and more stupid little caveats that just add a layer of frustration (resulting in written down passwords, or easy to guess ones). Allow me to come up with a full *phrase* using letters, numbers, spaces and phonetics (like "I'm 4 l177l3 t3ap@, Sh0r7 + Stout"), then save its SH1, MD5 or even AES256 hash ONLY, and security on the user-side is pretty much nailed shut - except for (as is already mentioned) key-logging and theft of password lists. I look at it this way: any programmer who doesn't know to make his app deal with spaces, slashes and quotes, or one that actually saves unhashed passwords (the only reason I can think of adding a word-filter on passwords), shouldn't be implementing a security system to begin with. :)

Thu, May 20, 2010 Luis

I use a made-up word that makes sense to me and nobody else, and then substitute certain letters with numbers or special characters, i.e. e=3, a=@, etc. This makes it easy to remember but hard to guess since it's a made-up word. The substitution also makes the password meet the strong password rules.

Thu, May 20, 2010 Dave fullerton Ca

Basic Security 101, there are only 3 ways to provide authentication 1) with something you know e.g. passwords w/without all the silly rules, 2) with something you have, e.g., a FOB that produces a single use password, 3) with something you are, e.g. biometrics. Any one of these is easily defeated. Any combination of two of these reduces the probability of defeat to an acceptable low level for most common applications

Thu, May 20, 2010

PKI-enabled smart card token and PIN.

Thu, May 20, 2010 Don Kunecke Colorado Springs

Using simple masks as I presented earlier provides the typical user a series of passwords that can be unique for each site. Users with more than 10 sites generally fall into the trap of reusing passwords because they cannot remember them all. Yet, the use of a KeePass either means you need to carry it with you all the time, or use only one computer. The mask allows the user to go anywhere and use any computer with some assurance that the password is strong and protects them. Most sites now take the four types of characters for a password, and the user can use a mask to generate passwords as often and as many characters as needed. A user should consider the mask presented and try it and see if it does not give them an easier and much stronger way to generate secure passwords.

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