Why Computer Passwords Are Still a Problem in 2019  

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There was a recent article before the holiday break on the complexity of computer passwords. The top “worst” password for 2018 was “123456.” Close behind in second place was “password.” They were also in first and second place in 2017. Slightly more complex was “123456789,” in third place in 2018, with the one-character shorter version, “12345678” just behind in fourth place. You get the gist.

Passwords are one of the critical problems in cybersecurity today. They are too easy to guess. They are too easy to break. All a hacker needs is your user ID (say, e.g. notsodifficult@password.com) and he or she can be off to the races in a matter of minutes invading your employee email account. Likely he also will be able to raid many of your other online accounts (like shopping, online gaming and streaming video) because you thought your lame password was so tricky that it was worthy of reusing in your 10 other accounts. The technical term for what happens here is an account takeover. In this case times 10. Re-using a lame password is problem one.

Problem two is social media. We are enamored with sharing information with our family and friends. That is good. Unfortunately, we share too much: names, places you went on vacation, names of dogs and cats and other animals, even grandparents’ names and locations. That is all good, except when those same names of places and dogs show up in your password.

Another part of the problem simply what you read about daily in the newspapers and blogs: in many of the largest breaches, many millions of passwords were stolen in 2017 and 2018 by third-party cyber criminals and nation-state attackers. If you weren’t able to reset all those passwords, you could be at risk across the board where you reused passwords in other places.

The last problem is spear phishing. Sometimes, cybercriminals are able to mimic the look and feel of a real company’s or bank’s letterhead or website, and ask the user in a tricky email for his user ID to help “solve a problem.” Except, the user doesn’t notice that the email comes from www,willsfargo,com or www,citibenk,com [yes, we replaced the periods with commas to prevent sending you there]—spoofed website addresses that are obviously not from these institutions. The user, being too busy with Christmas shopping, doesn’t notice the spoofing and enters his ID and password. This creates the stolen password problem and account takeover problem once again.

So, passwords used as an only key can be a problem—we have known that for a long time. But they can be improved in order to make it harder to breach, hack or steal. Here are a few ideas that can be employed for no cost, some cost and some with real cost. Which method you employ is up to you, but using any of the below methods places you in a better place than relying on the lame password:

Make them stronger than “123456.”

This suggestion is an easy one. But not so easy because using a more difficult password makes them easier to forget. We recommend at least eight characters, with numbers and symbols to boot. Don’t use your favorite ski resort (which someone can find on your Facebook page). Maybe use something like: “53dogs47!4D.” Again, harder to remember, but harder to hack.

Make a strong passphrase instead.

The “harder to remember” problem was one of the bases of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s recommendations that people adopt strong passphrases that are still hard to break, but allow the user some chance to remember them. The passphrases should not be easy but they should have some user familiarity. One passphrase might be “seven7ottersliketosuntanon8reddirtbeaches.” The passphrase is a mouthful and makes no sense. But that is the point.

Enact multifactor authentication with tokens or phone push technology.

Many businesses already have multifactor authentication or two-factor authentication built into their network security. In fact, the New York Department of Financial Services requires MFA whenever a user attempts to access his or her company’s computer network from the outside. In general, MFA consists of the following procedure. First the user signs into his or her network using his ID and strong password. Then the network automatically sends a six- or eight-digit number to his or her cell phone that must be entered for access. In some cases, MFA might also require putting in a code the user gets from an external token fob, or an external phone or iPad-like device. Only the user has access to the phone or iPad or personal fob. So theoretically MFA is a lot more secure than the bare password alone.

Use a password vault or password manager.

These are for your passwords across the board. They work much like a bank vault. Most security professionals today advocate for the use of a password manager as the average person can have upward of 100 accounts, and each of those accounts needs … you guessed it, a password. Nearly all password managers can be configured to work in offline or local-only mode, with the data stored only in your phone or only in your computer. Many password managers offer the convenience of working across multiple devices, in which case they often store an encrypted version of your password vault in the cloud. If the cloud makes you uneasy, you can choose to not save those highly sensitive passwords in the cloud, and instead store them in your home safe, or your bank vault.

Enact biometric authentication (where you can).

You are probably familiar with biometrics already. Biometrics is the science of analyzing physical or behavioral characteristics specific to each individual in order to be able to authenticate their identity. The iPhone requires a thumbprint to proceed. Other problems and apps require facial recognition. This helps the network understand that it is really you accessing the network, and not someone else. Newer technologies are being developed allowing for Iris scans. Yes, some of these technology advances are new. And there are reports that facial recognition solutions can be fooled (hacked) to, in essence, steal the persona of the user. That, of course, is a huge problem. But the industry is certainly going this route. And given device advances, you certainly will be going there too.

Enact USB based security plug-in keys.

This is a newer development. Some organizations are issuing USB sticks to their employees, which they are to plug in when signing in to their network. The USB key takes over the sign-in process, and the employee thereafter is allowed to access the network and its data. One USB key per employee. Each USB key is coded to be unique. This system eliminates the potential that the SMS code sent to your phone can be accessed other otherwise hacked. The downside of such USB keys is that they can cost $15 to $40 per unit. But as these keys have been reported to work well, they have become a compelling option for larger companies looking to step-up their security posture.

Passwords are and remain one of the biggest problems in cybersecurity, shown again by the prevalence of 123456 as the favorite password of many people since 2013. But we now have real alternatives. We see no real end in sight for mega-breaches and attacks. Don’t let your passwords become low-hanging fruit for the attacker, who will certainly excel in causing you grief and agony until you catch on that your stuff has been hacked or stolen. These suggestions can help make the attacker make a decision to ignore you and your data, and move on to someone else.

The #CyberAvengers are a group of salty and experienced professionals who have decided to work together to help keep this nation and its data safe and secure. They are Paul Ferrillo, Chuck Brooks, Kenneth Holley, George Platsis, George Thomas, Shawn Tuma and Christophe Veltsos.