The gift that keeps on giving: passwords

A Father’s Day special

There’s an old saying: “if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.”  There are some cruel alternatives with endings like “he’ll buy a silly hat and sit outside in the rain”, but the general idea is that it’s better to teach someone something rather than just giving them something.

With Father’s Day coming up this Sunday in many parts of the world, I’d like to suggest the same for passwords.  Many people’s password practices are terrible.  There are three things that people really don’t get about passwords:

  1. what they should look like
  2. how they should be stored
  3. how they should be communicated.

Let’s go through each of these in turn, and I’ll try to give brief tips that you can pass onto your father (or, indeed, mother, broader family, friends or colleagues) to help them with password safety.

What should passwords look like?

There’s a famous xkcd comic called password strength which aims to help you find a useful password.  This is great advice if you only have a few passwords, but about twenty years ago I got above ten, and then started re-using passwords for certain levels of security.  This was terrible at the time, and even worse now.  Look at the the number of times a week we see news about information being lost when companies or organisations are hacked.  If you share passwords between accounts, there’s a decent chance that your login details for one will be exposed, which means that all your other accounts that share that set are compromised.

I know some people who used to have permutations of passwords.  Let’s say the base was “p4ssw0rd”: they would then add a suffix for the website or account, such as “p4ssw0rdNetflix”.  This might be fine if we believed that all passwords are stored in hashed form, but, well, we know they’re not, so don’t do this, either.  Extrapolating from one account to another is too easy.

What does a good password look like, then?  Here’s one: “W9#!=_twXhRb”  And another?  This one is 16 characters long: “*Wdb_%|#N^X6CR_b”  What are the chances of a human guessing these?  Pretty slim.  And a computer?  Not much better, to be honest.  They are randomly generated by software, and as long as I use a different one for each account, I’m pretty safe against password-guessing attacks.

“But,” you say, “how am I supposed to remember them?  I’ve got dozens of accounts, and I can’t remember one of those, let alone fifty!”

How should you store passwords?

Well, you shouldn’t try to remember passwords, in the same way that you shouldn’t try to generate them.  Oh, there will be a handful that you might remember – maybe low-importance ones like the wifi key to your home AP – but most of them you should trust to a password manager.  These are nifty pieces of software that will generate and then remember hundreds of passwords for you.  Some of them will even automatically fill website fields for you if you ask them to.  The best ones are open source, which means that people have pored over their code (hopefully) to check they’re trustworthy, and that if you’re not entirely sure, then you can pore of their code, too.  And make changes and improvements and generally improve the world bit by bit.

You will need to remember one password, though, and that’s the one to unlock the password manager.  Make it really, really strong: it’s about the only one you mustn’t lose (though most websites will help you reset a password if you forget it, so it’s just a matter of going through each of the several hundred until they’re done…).  Use the advice from the xkcd cartoon, or another strong password algorithm that’s easy to remember.

To make things more safe, store the (password protected) key store somewhere that is not easily accessed by other people – not a shared drive at work, for instance, but maybe on your phone or on some cloud-based storage that you can get to if you lose your phone.  Always set the password manager to auto-lock itself after some time, in case you leave your computer logged on, or your phone gets stolen.

How to communicate passwords

Would you send a password via email?  What about by SMS?  Is post[2] better?  Is it acceptable to reveal a password over the phone in a crowded train carriage[4]?  Would you give your laptop password to a random person conducting a survey on a railway station for the prize of a chocolate bar?

In an ideal world, we would never share passwords, but there are times when we need to – and times when it’s worthwhile for material rewards[5].  There are some accounts which are shared – TV or film streaming accounts for the family – or that you’ve set up for somebody else, or which somebody urgently needs to access because you’re on holiday, for instance.  So you may need to give out passwords from time to time.  What’s the best mechanism?  What’s the worst?

This may sound surprising, but I’d generally say that the worst (marginally) is post.  What you’re trying to avoid happening is a Bad Person[tm] from marrying two pieces of information: the username and the password.  If someone has access to your post, then there’s a good chance that they might be able to work out enough information about you that they can guess the account name.  The others?  Well, they’re OK as long as you’re not also sending the username via the same channel.  That, in fact, is the key test: you should never provide the two pieces of information in such a way that a person with access to one channel can put them together.   So, telling someone a password in a crowded train carriage may be rude in relation to all of the other people in the carriage[6], but it may be very secure in terms of account safety.

The reason I posed the question about the survey is that every few months a survey company in the UK asks people at mainline railway stations to tell them their password in exchange for a chocolate bar, and then write a headline about how awful it is that many people will give them their password.  This is a stupid headline, for a stupid survey, for two reasons:

  1. I’d happily lie and tell them a false password in order to get a free chocolate bar AND
  2. even if I gave them the correct password, how are they going to marry that with my account details?

Conclusion

If you’re the sort of person reading there’s a fairly high chance that you’re the sort of person who’s asked to clear up the mess what family, friends or colleagues get their accounts compromised[7].  Here are four rules for password security:

  1. don’t reuse passwords – use a different one for every single account
  2. don’t think up your own passwords – get a password manager to generate them for you
  3. use a password manager to store your passwords – if they’re strong enough in the first place, you won’t be able to remember them
  4. never send usernames and passwords over the same channel – you want to avoid the situation where an attacker has access to both and can use them.

I’ll add a fifth one for luck: feel free to use underhand tactics to get chocolate bars from people performing poorly-designed surveys on railway stations.


1 – I thought about changing the order, as they do impact on each other, but it made my head hurt, so I stopped.

2 – note for younger readers: there used to be something called “snail mail”.  It’s nearly dead[3].

3 – unless you forget to turn on “electronic statements” for your bank account.  Then you’ll get loads of it.

4 – whatever the answer to this is from a security point of view, the correct answer is “no”, because a) you’re going to annoy me by shouting it repeatedly down the phone because reception is so bad on the train that the recipient can’t hear it and b) because reception is so bad on the train that the recipient can’t hear it (see b)).

5 – I like chocolate.

6 – I’m not a big fan of phone conversations in railway carriages, to be honest.

7 – Or you’ve been sent a link to this because you are one of those family, friends or colleagues, and the person who sent you the link is sick and tired of doing all of your IT dirty work for you.

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat.

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