Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How To Build A Better Password

As technology becomes more and more ubiquitous, so do the problems inherent with reliance on that technology.  Identity theft is on the rise, and most of us have probably had some experience with e-mails getting hacked (or know someone else who has).  One of my accounts got hit a few weeks ago, in fact.  I had been thinking for quite some time that I hadn't changed the password on that account for several years and that it was time to do so...but since that account was one I didn't use much, I hadn't gotten around to it.  Oops.  Fortunately, since it was an account I didn't use much, there was really no damage done.  I changed the password and then, just for good measure, I backed that account out of every website I could think of, and pretty much shut it down.  I also took the opportunity to update many of my other passwords, too.

For non-geeks, all this password protection and hacking and other techno-babble can get really intimidating.  You may be wondering how you can protect yourself without having a computer science degree under your belt.  Well, have no fear!  Here's a great article on how you can create an iron-clad password without too much mental effort:

Your e-mail password is your last line of defense when it comes to online privacy and security; if a hacker cracks that, they could potentially reset the passwords of and gain access to your social networks, your bank account and even your identity by taking advantage of the ubiquitous "I Forgot My Password" button.

It's tempting to use the same password for all of your online accounts, but doing so renders every account vulnerable if any one of them gets hacked. But given some recent massive security breaches, now's a good time to update your passwords and make sure each is unique.

There are a few great password management programs like KeePass that will store all of your passwords in one encrypted database and allow you to access them with one master password, allowing you to carry every password you'll ever need on a single thumb drive. A multi-platform password manager with browser support like LastPass is even easier to use because it will automatically sync between different computers and browsers, letting you access your encrypted database from any device, though you sacrifice the security of keeping your password list confined to a single hard drive.

Using a password manager is a great way to improve your personal security online, but it's not perfect; the perfect password is the one you never write down, a unique string of letters, numbers and symbols that not even you know until the moment you enter it. That may be beyond our grasp, but you can get awful close by using a few simple mnemonic tricks.

One Password To Rule Them All

It's actually fairly easy to create strong, unique passwords by following a few simple rules. First, we need a password "base" with a mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers and even a symbol or two to spice things up. Pick a phrase that will be easy to remember, and feel free to be as creative as you like. For simplicity's sake I'm going to use one of my favorite dishes, chicken adobo, as our example.

Make sure your passphrase is at least eight characters and avoid obviously memorable topics like proper names, birthdays and hometowns. You should also avoid picking a single word and changing some of its characters to symbols--hacker tools are sophisticated enough to foil that trick. Go for a passphrase--multiple words strung together--rather than a password; this makes it harder for hackers working to crack your password by trying every word in the dictionary.

Now that we've picked a passphrase, we need to mash that phrase into a single string (chickenadobo), then sprinkle in a few capital letters that are simple to remember (ChickenAdobo). Next, let's pepper our password base with a few random characters to keep things interesting (Ch!cken@dob0).

Now that we have our base password, we're going to memorize and use it as a skeleton key that will unlock our account on any Website as long as we hold fast to a few simple rules. To create the strongest password possible, we're going to invent a simple naming pattern as a mnemonic device that will help us generate a unique password for every Website we visit.

For example, let's say I decided to always use the first and fourth letter of a Website's domain name in the middle of my passphrase, capitalizing the former while leaving the latter lower-case. That means my account would have the unique password Ch!ckenFe@dob0, while my account would require the password Ch!ckenAu@dob0.

See the pattern? Make up a something similar and you'll have a unique alphanumeric password for every website you visit, one that's easy to remember but nearly impossible for hackers to figure out. No password is perfect, but knowing your own unique passphrase and a few mnemonic tricks will go a long way towards keeping your online privacy intact.

The Internet has become so login-heavy that I've followed the practice of using a password file for years.  There's no possible way I'll remember all the logins and passwords I've got for all the websites/tools/memberships I've got, but remembering only a single master password -- even a long, nasty, unbreakable one -- is no problem.  Personally, I like having a local copy of my password information, so I like KeePass and use it for both my home stuff and my work stuff.  I also don't want to rely on having Internet access to be able to access my password information.  Time Warner Cable has created that foible for me.  Anyway, I also like KeePass's export feature that lets you dump all the information in your database to an Excel file for backup purposes (but be careful with that, since the exported file will NOT be password-protected!).  Best of all, there's a version of KeePass that can run off of a USB flash drive, so I can take all of my passwords with me wherever I go, and access them on any computer.

The point of all this security is, of course, protecting your data and yourself.  To do that, you just need to take a little bit of time and effort to create a single master password, and the method above is a great way to do that without much fuss.  Once that's done, you can keep track of all your other stuff with minimal hassle and maximum security.

Just make sure you don't write your master password down on a Post-It note stuck to your monitor...

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