Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Passwords Don't Matter

Why Passwords Don't Matter

I set out to write an article about tools to easily manage passwords securely, but when I looked for data on computer crime to encourage people to use better passwords, I discovered a very different story. Most "computer crime" (according to the FBI) is various forms of scams and con games that used to be carried out in person, over the phone, or through the mail, but are now done through online auctions or email. Nothing to do with passwords. This 25-page 2008 Internet Crime Report by the FBI only uses the word "password" twice.

At least for corporations, the big problem seems to be people using the access they were given to do bad things. That happens much more often than people hacking into other accounts.

Computer attacks tend to target applications and the operating system. If you don't keep up with patches, your password won't matter. Source: The Top Cyber Security Risks.

Contrary to the title of this posting, good password practices are important. But what's even more important is to:

1.) Keep your wits about you and cultivate a healthy skepticism before downloading a free game, clicking on an advertisement, or buying something from someone you don't know (e.g. eBay).

2.) Keep your operating system and applications updated. Always choose, "Yes, apply updates right now" and "Of course I'll reboot." Manually check for updates periodically just in case.

3.) Use a tool like Revo Uninstaller to remove applications you are no longer using. Especially anything by Adobe, RealPlayer, toolbars (e.g. Yahoo!), and the Microsoft .NET framework.

When Do Passwords Matter?

I got an email today saying that a web application I used a single time eight years ago had suffered a break-in and warning me that if I used that password for multiple accounts, I should change the passwords to all those accounts. I have over 120 personal accounts, and God knows how many at my various jobs over the last 8 years - how many of those applications have been compromised? Kudos to the organization who discovered the break-in AND alerted me. I think it's safe to assume this is not the only break-in among those 120 applications, nor the only one discovered.

Minimum Effort Password Management

I just read a wonderful article in the Boston Globe Online about the time-wasting, annoying, and mostly useless advice security experts have given us about passwords. So if you want to be secure with the minimum amount of effort, what is the most important thing?

I believe using a different unguessable password for every account is the most important password practice because doing so means that all of your other accounts are safe whenever one of them is compromised - and if you use a computer long enough, accounts WILL be compromised. Some have suggested using X9$bFacebook, X9$bTwitter, X9$bMySpace, but schemes that use the application name, even if it's altered in various ways, are still guessable.

To manage different passwords for every account, you need a password manager. Many people use the "remember passwords" feature of their favorite browser. This is a terrible idea because:
  • It means you are storing your most secure data (your passwords) in your least secure application (your browser)

  • You are going to need to enter activation keys or passwords into software installed on your machine at some point, and you cannot store that in your browser

  • When you go to another computer, or try to switch to another brand of browser, you don't have your passwords.

  • When your hard drive dies, so do all your passwords

  • When you die, so does access to your computer and all your passwords.

So the web browser is not such a good solution. The best I've found (and thanks to a good friend for pointing me to it) is a free, open-source password manager called KeePass which is available for Windows and KeePassX for Linux, Mac, and Windows. I use it with a strong master-password and a tool called DropBox to synch it across my computers. Lifehacker has an article on how to use them together. Once a year, I recommend printing out your KeePass database, writing your master password on it (your Dropbox password will be in your KeePass database), sealing the list in a tamper-evident security envelope, and putting it in your safe deposit box. Then burn last years list (you know, with a match). When your hard drive dies, you have a backup immediately available on your other computers via Dropbox. When you die, there are legal proceedings for your next of kin to access your safe deposit box.

For a less secure, less robust, but easier to use password manager, look at LastPass.

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