Start Page: Protecting those pesky passwords is necessary evil

January 4, 2012

StartPageBrand.jpgYou are bad at managing passwords. You may be a good attorney – but you share your passwords with other people, you use the same password on multiple systems, your password is too short or too simple or written on a Post-it note under your keyboard. The truth is: you don’t like passwords or complicated password policies and you don’t think a secure password is worth the trouble.

That was, until the consequences of a data breach made it worth the trouble. That day has come. In fact, that day came long ago. You’ve just been lucky.

Some data breaches are not the result of compromised passwords. Faulty software can expose private data. Your PC can get infected with a virus that delivers your files into the clutches of a server operated by organized crime. Your laptop can get stolen or an emBrand-010612.gifployee may lose your backup on the “thumb drive” he keeps with his keys. All these troubles may lead to data leaks – but cracked passwords are too common and indefensible; you can actually “fix” this source of leaks if you set your mind to it.

By changing your password often you can prevent someone who had access to your account today from having it tomorrow. Passwords that last forever may outlast relationships. Pick a cycle: change of seasons, start and end of school, national holidays or some other easily memorable way to mark the passage of time and use that event as a reminder to change your password.

Complex passwords don’t have to be complicated. With a few simple tricks you can make up passwords that are nearly impossible to guess but easy to remember.

• Use a mix of capital and lower case letters

• Use at least eight characters

• Use numbers and punctuation marks

• Use symbols: %, $, @, etc.

Tech Tip: you can substitute symbols that have a similar appearance:

@ = a

$ = s

0 (zero) for o (oh)

! or 1 for i

3 for e (note that it is just backwards, like: z for s

• Don’t use a word you could find in a dictionary

• Don’t use your name or anyone else’s

• Don’t use a sequence of numbers or letters: 1234 … or abcd … or a phone number

There are 70 times more combinations of nine characters than eight – so pick a longer password if possible.

Analysis of a data breach at a web services provider with millions of users uncovered that the most popular password used was “123456” – the second most popular: password. Don’t be a statistic!

One simple scheme to create a complex password is to join common words separated by special characters. The first part might be “Winter,” “Summer,” “Football,” or “Baseball.” The “season” will be obvious based on the time of year. Then separate them with a special character. For added security, substitute symbols for letters. Here is an example:

W!nter$2o12 – This substitutes 1 for i and o for 0.

If you use the same password everywhere then someone who guesses it will have access to everything. One trick is to add a prefix to identify which device or service the password is for. This way you don’t need to remember lots of passwords, but each one will still be unique.

• For your email: EMail#W!nter$2o12

• For your bank: Bank#W!nter$2o12

• For your computer: PC#W!nter$2o12

• For your Facebook account: FB#W!nter$2o12

Other password strategies include using the first initial of words in a short phrase or breaking up a phrase into parts. Here are five passwords based on a common phrase:

N!tTime4 Now is the time for

Allg00d$ All good

M3n2C0m! Men to come

2the@id0F To the Aid of

The1rC0untry Their Country

Safeguard your passwords. We’ve seen passwords written on whiteboards and collected in spreadsheets shared by everyone in a firm. The problem with shared passwords goes beyond information that may be shared with the wrong people. If someone has your password they can pretend to be you. One of our customer’s email accounts was hacked simply for the purpose of sending tens of thousands of messages that appeared to come from him.

Use a strong password for every system. Even a compromised Facebook account can lead to embarrassing consequences. If you employ people who use passwords make sure they comply with these rules too; and that goes double for IT consultants and other contractors that touch your systems.

Bill Gates famously decreed in 2004 that passwords were dead. There have been inroads made by so-called “two factor” solutions – those that combine something you “know” like a password and something you “have” like a digital “token” (the Yubi Key is my favorite) or something you “are” like a fingerprint – but logins and passwords remain ubiquitous and probably will for a long time.

Make a New Year’s resolution to create a simple password policy that protects your reputation and confidential materials – before you regret it!•


Kim Brand is a technology expert and president of Computer Experts Inc., a 27-year-old IT services company in Indianapolis. He has presented to local and state bar audiences and written for West Publishing and the ILTA. Kim contributed to the “On-Premises” section of the recently released ILTSO.org legal technical standards, and he is the inventor of the FileSafe Server used by many law firms. He may be reached at Kim@ComputerExpertsIndy.com or by phone at 317-833-3000. The opinions expressed are the author’s.


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