My 7 rules for remote-work sanity

If I need to get out of my office, I’ll take the dog for a walk

I work remotely, and have done, on and off, for a good percentage of the past 10-15 years.  I’m lucky that I’m in a role where this suits my responsibilities, and in a company – Red Hat – that is set up for it.  Not all roles – those with many customer onsite meetings, or those with a major service component – are suited to remote working, of course, but it’s clear that an increasing number of organisations are considering having at least some of their workers doing so remotely.

I’ve carefully avoided using the phrase either “working from home” or “working at home” above.  I’ve seen discussion that the latter gives a better “vibe” for some reason, but it’s not accurate for many remote workers.  In fact, it doesn’t describe my role perfectly, either.  My role is remote, in that I have no company-provided “base” – with chair, desk, meeting rooms, phone, Internet access, etc. – but I don’t spend all of my time at home.  I spend maybe one and a half weeks a month, on average, travelling – to attend or speak at conferences, to have face-to-face (“F2F”) meetings, etc..  During these times, I’m generally expected to be contactable and to keep at least vaguely up-to-date on email – though the exact nature of the activities in which I’m engaged, and the urgency of the contacts and email, may increase or reduce my engagement.

Open source

One of the reasons that I can work remotely is that I work for a company that works with open source software.  I’m currently involved in a very exciting project called Enarx (which I first announced on this blog).  We have contributors in Europe and the US – and interest from further abroad.  Our stand-ups are all virtual, and we default to turning on video.  At least two of our regulars will participate from a treadmill, I will typically actually stand at my desk.  We use github for all of our code (it’s all open source, of course), and there’s basically no reason for us to meet in person very often.  We try to celebrate together – agreeing to get cake, wherever we are, to mark special occasions, for instance – and have laptop stickers to brand ourselves and help team unity. We have a shared chat, and IRC channel and spend a lot of time communicating via different channels.  We’re still quite a small team, but it works for now.  If you’re looking for more tips about how to manage, coordinate and work in remote teams, particularly around open source projects, you’ll find lots of information at the brilliant Opensource.com.

The environment

When I’m not travelling around the place, I’m based at home.  There, I have a commute – depending on weather conditions – of around 30-45 seconds, which is generally pretty bearable.  My office is separate from the rest of the house (set in the garden), and outfitted with an office chair, desk, laptop dock, monitor, webcam, phone, keyboard and printer: these are the obvious work-related items in the room.

Equally important, however, are the other accoutrements that make for a good working environment.  These will vary from person to person, but I also have:

  • a Sonos, attached to an amplifier and good speakers
  • a sofa, often occupied by my dog, and sometimes one of the cats
  • a bookshelf, where the books which aren’t littering the floor reside
  • tea-making facilities (I’m British – this is important)
  • a fridge, filled with milk (for the tea), beer and wine (don’t worry: I don’t drink these during work hours, and it’s more that the fridge is good for “overflow” from our main kitchen one)
  • wide-opening windows and blinds for the summer (we have no air-conditioning: I’m British, remember?)
  • underfloor heating and a wood-burning stove for the winter (the former to keep the room above freezing until I get the latter warmed up)
  • a “NUC” computer and monitor for activities that aren’t specifically work-related
  • a few spiders.

What you have will depend on your work style, but these “non-work-related” items are important (bar the spiders, possibly) to my comfort and work practice.  For instance, I often like to listen to music to help me concentrate; I often sit on the sofa with the dog/cats to read long documents; and without the fridge and tea-making facilities, I might as well be American[1].

My rules

How does it work, then?  Well, first of all, most of us like human contact from time to time.  Some remote workers will rent space in a shared work environment, and work there most of the time: they prefer an office environment, or don’t have a dedicated space for working a home.  Others will mainly work in coffee shops, or on their boat[2], or may spend half of the year in the office, and the other half working from a second home.  Whatever you do, finding something that works for you is important.  Here’s what I tend to do, and why:

  1. I try to have fairly rigid work hours – officially (and as advertised on our intranet for the information of colleagues), I work 10am-6pm UK time.  This gives me a good overlap with the US (where many of my colleagues are based), and time in the morning to go for a run or a cycle and/or to walk the dog (see below).  I don’t always manage these times, but when I flex in one direction, I attempt to pull some time back the other way, as otherwise I know that I’ll just work ridiculous hours.
  2. I ensure that I get up and have a cup of tea – in an office environment, I would typically be interrupted from time to time by conversations, invitations to get tea, phyiscal meetings in meeting rooms, lunch trips, etc..  This doesn’t happen at home, so it’s important to keep moving, or you’ll be stuck at your desk for 3-4 hours at a time, frequently.  This isn’t good for your health, and often, for your productivity (and I enjoy drinking tea).
  3. I have an app which tells me when I’ve been inactive – this is new for me, but I like it.  If I’ve basically not moved for an hour, my watch (could be phone or laptop) tells me to do some exercise.  It even suggests something, but I’ll often ignore that, and get up for some tea, for instance[3].
  4. I use my standing desk’s up/down capability – I try to vary my position through the day from standing to sitting and back again.  It’s good for posture, and keeps me more alert.
  5. I walk the dog – if I just need to get out of my office and do some deep thinking (or just escape a particularly painful email thread!), I’ll take the dog for a walk.  Even if I’m not thinking about work for all of the time, I know that it’ll make me more productive, and if it’s a longish walk, I’ll make sure that I compensate with extra time spent working (which is always easy).
  6. I have family rules – the family knows that when I’m in my office, I’m at work.  They can message me on my phone (which I may ignore), or may come to the window to see if I’m available, but if I’m not, I’m not.  Emergencies (lack of milk for tea, for example) can be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.
  7. I go for tea (and usually cake) at a cafe – sometimes, I need to get into a different environment, and have a chat with actual people.  For me, popping into the car for 10 minutes and going to a cafe is the way to do this.  I’ve found one which makes good cakes (and tea).

These rules don’t describe my complete practice, but they are an important summary of what I try to do, and what keeps me (relatively) sane.  Your rules will be different, but I think it’s really important to have rules, and to make it clear to yourself, your colleagues, your friends and your family, what they are.  Remote working is not always easy, and requires discipline – but that discipline is, more often than not, in giving yourself some slack, rather than making yourself sit down for eight hours a day.


1 – I realise that many people, including many of my readers, are American.  That’s fine: you be you.  I actively like tea, however (and know how to make it properly, which seems to be an issue when I visit).

2 – I know a couple of these: lucky, lucky people!

3 – can you spot a pattern?

Merry “sorting out relatives’ IT problems” Day

Today’s the day – or the season – when your mother-in-law asks you to fix her five year old laptop, unclog the wifi (it’s usually her husband, “stealing it all”) or explain why her mouse mat is actually easily large enough – she just needs to lift the mouse up and place it back in the middle if she can’t get the cursor to go any further right.

Lucky me: I didn’t even have to wait till Christmas Day this year: my m-in-law called us at home a couple of days ago to complain that “the email thingy isn’t working on my tablet and the Chrome has gone”. After establishing that her Chrome Book (upstairs) was fine, and she just couldn’t be bothered to ascend the stairs to use it for the two days before we came to visit and I could debug her tablet problem in person, I proceeded to debug the problem over the crackly wireless DECT phone they keep attached to their land line, instead[1].

Despite the difficulty in making out approximately 25% of the words down the line, I became more and more convinced that even if her tablet was having problems, then a reboot of her router was probably due.

Me: so you know which one the router is?

Her: umm…

Me: it’s the little box where the Internet comes in.

Her: is it in the hall?

Me, to the wife, who’s smirking, since she managed to offload this call to me: could it be in the hall?

Wife: yes, it’s in the hall.

Me: yes, it’s in the hall.

Mother-in-law: OK.

Me: there should be a power button on the front or the back, or you can just pull the power lead out if that’s easiest.

Her, clearly bending over to look at it: shall I just turn it off at the wall? That might be simplest?

Me: well, OK.

Her: Right, I’m doing that n… BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

It turns out that her DECT phone hub is plugged into the same socket. Of course. This is my life. This is OUR life.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year to you all.


1 – this, folks, is how to stay married for 23 and a half years[2].

2 – and counting.

The Twelve Days of Work-Life Balance

12 tips for working at home over the holidays

Disclaimer: the author refuses to take any blame for any resulting disciplinary or legal action taken against readers who follow any of the suggestions in this article.

There’s a good chance that things slow down for the holiday season at your organisation or company[1], and as they do, there’s a corresponding[2] chance that you may end up not going into the office for some of the upcoming days.  Some workplaces expect you to turn up to work in the office unless you’re officially on holiday, while others allow or encourage workers to be based at home and perform their duties there for all or some of the period.  It’s those people who will be spending time at home who are targeted by this article.

Working from home is an opportunity to bunk off and is a complete wheeze a privilege and responsibility to be taken seriously.  There are, however, some important techniques that you should take on board to ensure not only that you continue to be productive but, even more important, that you continue to be seen to be productive.  I’ve split my tips up into helpful headings for your ease of use.

Video calls

Tip 1 (for those who shave): you don’t need to.  Yes, the resolution on webcams has increased significantly, but who’s going to care if it looks like you’ve just rolled out of bed?  The fact that you’ve even bothered shows your commitment to the meeting you’re attending.

Tip 2 (for those who wear make-up): far be it from me to dictate whether you wear make-up or not to meetings.  But if you choose to, there’s no need to refresh last night’s make-up in the morning.  If you’ve staggered home late, you may not have got round to removing your party lipstick and mascara, and it may even have smudged or run a bit: don’t worry.  It’ll look “festive” in the morning, and will encourage a relaxed atmosphere at the meeting.

Tip 3 (for coffee drinkers): you may need an extra cup of coffee in the afternoon, to get you through the day.  Who’s going to know if you add a shot to it?  It’ll keep you warm, and possibly upright.  My wife swears by Baileys.  Or Irish Whiskey.  Or gin.  Pretty much anything, in fact.

Tip 4 (for non-coffee drinkers): cocktails are a no-no for video conferences, unless approved by management (sorry).  However, there are a number of other options to explore.  A Long Island Iced Tea looks like, well, an iced tea.  Whisky (or whiskey) can look like normal tea, and my personal favourite, cherry brandy, looks like a child’s fruit cordial that you didn’t dilute sufficiently.  And tastes fairly similar.

Tip 5 (for clothes wearers): few organisations (of which I’m aware, anyway) have adopted a non-clothing policy for video-calls.  Clothes are required.  My favourite option is to wear a festive jumper, but this is only fun if it has woven-in flashing lights which can distract your fellow participants[3].  Coordinating the periodicity of the flashing with colleagues gets you bonus points.

Tip 6 (also for clothes wearers): wear something on your bottom half.  I know you think you may not be getting up during the call, but when a small child vomits in the background, the postal worker arrives at the door, or you just need another cup of coffee or “beverage” (see tips 3 & 4) to get you through the next two hours, you’ll be grateful for this advice.

Teleconferences (non-video)

Tip 7: use a chat channel to have a side conversation with your peers. You can have hilarious discussions about the intellectual capacity and likely parentage of your management, or even better, play a game of meeting bingo.

Tip 8: the mute button is for cowards.  Yes, wind can be a problem after an over-indulgence at the pub, club or party the night before, and microphones can be quite sensitive these days, but who’s to know it’s you[4]?

Emails

Tip 9: the best time to respond to an email is when you receive it, right?  This will show everybody how devoted you are to your job.  So if it arrives after you’ve already partaken of a brew or two down the pub, or sampled the herbal opportunities recently decriminalised in your state in your bedroom, then replying immediately will almost certainly be considered responsible and professional.  And auto-correct will almost certainly act in your favour: after all, your boss really is a complete duck, yes?

Tip 10: pepper your emails with poor festive puns[5].  It’s just what you do.

Family

Tip 11: you may have agreed to “work” over this period as an excuse to avoid spending too much time with the family[6], but there’s always the chance that they will barge into your office, throw up in the hall (see tip 6), or just fall asleep on your keyboard[7].  Invest in a lock on your office door, or work somewhere out of range[8].  Your work is important, and you must guard against unwanted interruptions, such as being awoken from an important doze.

Productivity

Tip 12: it’s your responsibility, when working from home, to ensure that you maintain your productivity.  But breaks are important.  There’s a tricky balance here between protecting your time from the family (you don’t want them to notice that you’re not online 100% of the time) and taking sensible amounts of breaks.  Assuming that you’ve taken my advice about locking your office door, then placing an XBox or similar gaming console on your desk next to your work computer is a great way of allowing yourself some downtime without risking the wrath of your family (assuming careful monitor placement and controller handling).

Tip 12a (extra tip!): if you’re not careful, too much time hidden away from the family will get you in trouble.  My piece of advice here is to offer to help.  But on your own terms.  Rushing out of your office[9], looking harried and then announcing “I’ve got ten minutes until my next call, and I’m feeling guilty: is there anything I can do?” can gain you useful credit without the risk of your having to do anything too taxing.

Summary[10]

You can maintain a productive and professional workplace at home if called to do so by your organisation.  It is your responsibility to balance the needs of work with your needs and, of course, the needs of your family.

Have a Merry Christmas (or other festival) and a Happy New Year (whenever it falls for you)!


1 – this is generally a Judaeo-Christian set of holidays, but I hope that this article is relevant to most holidays: religious, national, regional or secular.

2 – and possibly correlateable, though check out one of my favourite XKCD comics: https://xkcd.com/552/.

3 – owners of luxuriant beards or heads of hair may prefer to weave flashing fairy lights into their hair for a similar effect.

4 – except for the small matter of the little indicator against each participant’s name which shows who’s “talking”.

5 – “Your presents is requested.”  “But wait—there’s myrrh.” You get the idea.

6 – “Sorry, darling, I know your parents are here, but a really critical bug came in, and I’m the only one who can look at it in time…”

7 – mainly a problem for owners of cats or teenagers.

8 – try searching for “Where’s a pub near me that’s open now?”.

9 – don’t forget to lock it again, in case a child notices and purloins that gaming console.

10 – in the Southern Hemisphere, at least.  Sorry: see [5].

 

The 3 things you need to know about disk encryption

Use software encryption, preferably an open-source and audited solution.

It turns out that somebody – well, lots of people, in fact – failed to implement a cryptographic standard very well.  This isn’t a surprise, I’m afraid, but it’s bad news.  I’ve written before about how important it is to be using disk encryption, but it turns out that the advice I gave wasn’t sufficient, or detailed enough.

Here’s a bit of background.  There are two ways to do disk encryption:

  1. let the disk hardware (and firmware) manage it: HDD (hard disk drive), SSD (solid state drive) and hybrid (a mix of HDD and SDD technologies) manufacturers create drives which have encryption built in.
  2. allow your Operating System (e.g. Linux[0], OSX[1], Windows[2]) to do the job: the O/S will have a little bit of itself on the disk unencrypted, which will allow it to decrypt the rest of the disk (which is encrypted) when provided with a password or key.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that option 1 would be the safest?  It should be quick, as it’s done in hardware, and well, the companies who manufacture these disks will know that they’re doing, right?

No.

A paper (link opens a PDF file) written by some researchers in the Netherlands reveals some work that they did on several SSD drives to try to work out how good a job had been done on the encryption security.  They are all supposed to have implemented a fairly complex standard from the TCG[4] called Opal, but it seems that none of them did it right.  It turns out that someone with physical access to your hardware can, fairly trivially, decrypt what’s on your drive.  And they can do this without the password that you use to lock it or any associated key(s).  The simple lesson from this is that you shouldn’t trust hardware disk encryption.

So, software disk encryption is OK, then?

Also no.

Well, actually yes, as long as you’re not using Microsoft’s BitLocker in its default mode.  It turns out that BitLocker will just use hardware encryption if the drive its using supports it.  In other words, using BitLocker just uses hardware encryption unless you tell it not to do so.

What about other options?  Well, you can tell BitLocker not to use hardware encryption, but only for a new installation: it won’t change on an existing disk.  The best option[5] is to use a software encryption solution which is open source and audited by the wider community.  LUKS is the default for most Linux distributions.  One suggested by the papers’ authors for Windows is Veracrypt.  Can we be certain that there are no holes or mistakes in the implementation of these solutions?  No, we can’t, but the chances of security issues being found and fixed are much, much higher than for proprietary software[6].

What, then are my recommendations?

  1. Don’t use hardware disk encryption.  It’s been shown to be flawed in many implementations.
  2. Don’t use proprietary software.  For anything, honestly, particularly anything security-related, but specifically not for disk encryption.
  3. If you have to use Windows, and are using BitLocker, run with VeraCrypt on top.

 


1 – GNU Linux.

2 – I’m not even sure if this is the OS that Macs run anymore, to be honest.

3 – not my thing either, but I’m pretty sure this is what it’s call.  Couldn’t be certain of the version, though.

4 – Trusted Computing Group.

5 – as noted by the paper’s authors, and heartily endorsed by me.

6 – I’m not aware of any problems with Macintosh-based implementations, but open source is just better – read the article linked from earlier in the sentence.

Change, refuse, report

I’m busy over the next couple of days, and wasn’t going to post, but the issue is important, so I’m taking a few minutes to post.

There are some nasty extortion/blackmail emails out there at the moment.  People are being emailed, with a the subject line including a real password, and told to send fairly large amounts of bitcoin in order to stop incriminating or embarrassing material being spread to friends, family and the public.  Here’s what you should do.

Change

Change your passwords.  Particularly if the one that was quoted in the title or email body is current. Use a password manager, follow the advice here: The gift that keeps on giving: passwords.

Refuse

Refuse to pay.  Don’t even contact the sender.  Even if you’re worried that the material may exist or the threat is real.

Report

Report it to your local law enforcement agency: particularly if you’re concerned that this may be a real threat to you.  There are steps that law enforcement can take, and they can help you.

 

That’s it: be safe, and let’s shut down these criminals by not playing their game.

3 laptop power mode options

Don’t suspend your laptop.

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago called 7 security tips for travelling with your laptop.  The seventh tip was “Don’t suspend”: in other words, when you’re finished doing what you’re doing, either turn your laptop off, or put it into “hibernate” mode.  I thought it might be worth revisiting this piece of advice, partly to explain the difference between these different states, and partly to explain exactly why it’s a bad idea to use the suspend mode.  A very bad idea indeed.  In fact, I’d almost go as far as saying “don’t suspend your laptop”.

So, what are the three power modes usually available to us on a laptop?  Let’s look at them one at a time.  I’m going to assume that you have disk encryption enabled (the second of the seven tips in my earlier article), because you really, really should.

Power down

This is what you think it is: your laptop has powered down, and in order to start it up again, you’ve got to go through an entire boot process.  Any applications that you had running before will need to be restarted[1], and won’t come back in the same state that they were before[2].  If somebody has access to your laptop when you’re not there, then there’s not immediate way that they can get at your data, as it’s encrypted[3].  See the conclusion for a couple of provisos, but powering down your laptop when you’re not using it is pretty safe, and the time taken to reboot a modern laptop with a decent operating system on it is usually pretty quick these days.

It’s worth noting that for some operating systems – Microsoft Windows, at least – when you tell your laptop to power down, it doesn’t.  It actually performs a hibernate without telling you, in order to speed up the boot process.  There are (I believe – as a proud open source user, I don’t run Windows, so I couldn’t say for sure) ways around this, but most of the time you probably don’t care: see below on why hibernate mode is pretty good for many requirements and use cases.

Hibernate

Confusingly, hibernate is sometimes referred to as “suspend to disk”.  What actually happens when you hibernate your machine is that the contents of RAM (your working memory) are copied and saved to your hard disk.  The machine is then powered down, leaving the state of the machine ready to be reloaded when you reboot.  When you do this, the laptop notices that it was hibernated, looks for saved state, and loads it into RAM[4].  Your session should come back pretty much as it was before – though if you’ve moved to a different wifi network or a session on a website has expired, for instance, your machine may have to do some clever bits and pieces in the background to make things as nice as possible as you resume working.

The key thing about hibernating your laptop is that while you’ve saved state to the hard drive, it’s encrypted[3], so anyone who manages to get at your laptop while you’re not there will have a hard time getting any data from it.  You’ll need to unlock your hard drive before your session can be resumed, and given that your attacker won’t have your password, you’re good to go.

Suspend

The key difference between suspend and the other two power modes we’ve examined above is that when you choose to suspend your laptop, it’s still powered on.  The various components are put into low-power mode, and it should wake up pretty quickly when you need it, but, crucially, all of the applications that you were running beforehand are still running, and are still in RAM.  I mentioned in my previous post that this increases the attack surface significantly, but there are some protections in place to improve the security of your laptop when it’s in suspend mode.  Unluckily, they’re not always successful, as was demonstrated a few days ago by an attack described by the Register.  Even if your laptop is not at risk from this particular attack, my advice just not to use suspend.

There are two usages of suspend that are difficult to manage.  The first is when you have your machine set to suspend after a long period of inactivity.  Typically, you’ll set the screen to lock after a certain period of time, and then the system will suspend.  Normally, this is only set for when you’re on battery – in other words, when you’re not sat at your desk with the power plugged in.  My advice would be to change this setting so that your laptop goes to hibernate instead.  It’s a bit more time to boot it up, but if you’re leaving your laptop unused for a while, and it’s not plugged in, then it’s most likely that you’re travelling, and you need to be careful.

The second is when you get up and close the lid to move elsewhere.  If you’re moving around within your office or home, then that’s probably OK, but for anything else, try training yourself to hibernate or power down your laptop instead.

Conclusion

There are two important provisos here.

The first I’ve already mentioned: if you don’t have disk encryption turned on, then someone with access to your laptop, even for a fairly short while, is likely to have quite an easy time getting at your data.  It’s worth pointing out that you want full disk encryption turned on, and not just “home directory” encryption.  That’s because if someone has access to your laptop for a while, they may well be able to make changes to the boot-up mechanism in such a way that they can wait until you log in and either collect your password for later use or have the data sent to them over the network.  This is much less easy with full disk encryption.

The second is that there are definitely techniques available to use hardware and firmware attacks on your machine that may be successful even with full disk encryption.  Some of these are easy to spot – don’t turn on your machine if there’s anything in the USB port that you don’t recognise[5] – but others, where hardware may be attached or even soldered to the motherboard, or firmware changed, are very difficult to spot.  We’re getting into some fairly sophisticated attacks here, and if you’re worried about them, then consider my first security tip “Don’t take a laptop”.


1 – some of them automatically, either as system processes (you rarely have to remember to have to turn networking back on, for instance), or as “start-up” applications which most operating systems will allow you to specify as auto-starting when you log in.

2 – this isn’t actually quite true for all applications: it might have been more accurate to say “unless they’re set up this way”.  Some applications (web browsers are typical examples) will notice if they weren’t shut down “nicely”, and will attempt to get back into the state they were beforehand.

3 – you did enable disk encryption, right?

4 – assuming it’s there, and hasn’t been corrupted in some way, in which case the laptop will just run a normal boot sequence.

5 – and don’t just use random USB sticks from strangers or that you pick up in the carpark, but you knew that, right?

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.