Time once again for my updated guidelines on creating passwords. The short version: use passphrases that are at least 12 characters long and different on every site, plus two-factor authentication where possible. And for pity’s sake, stop using weak passwords!
Many people say to me, “I don’t need a secure password. I don’t have anything sensitive on my computer, so I don’t care if a hacker gets in.” You, my friends, are a hacker’s dream. Because it’s not necessarily your personal information they want, although they’ll happily steal your credit card info if they can. No, what they really want is control of your computer, your email address, your Facebook page… anything and everything that will let them do their dirty work from behind a smokescreen.
Strong passwords must be:
- Not in use on any other system
This is perhaps the biggest no-no in the password rulebook. When hackers nab passwords, they try the same account/password combinations on popular sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter. If you’re using the same password you just let them in. Do not ever, ever, ever use the same password anywhere. Before you despair, keep reading. There are tools to make it easier.
- Changed regularly
Yes, you have to change your passwords. And yes, they still have to be different everywhere. In fact this is one of the best things you can do to secure your passwords. Use a password management tool if you need help keeping track of everything (see below).
- 12 characters or longer
Think passphrase rather than password. The longer and more complex a password is, the less likely it can be cracked.
- A mix of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols
Some systems won’t allow you to use a range of characters in your password, in which case I suggest you reconsider using that site. Do you really trust someone who isn’t going to allow you to secure your account properly? Makes you wonder how secure everything else on the site is.
- Not common words or proper nouns found in a dictionary
Here’s a list of the 25 worst passwords of 2015. If your passwords sound like these, change them now.
- Not the names of your spouse, kids, pets, or other personally identifying information
Don’t create passwords out of information that can be gleaned about you, and don’t share information that can be used to guess security questions. For example, if you have pictures of your dog Fido on Facebook, and you also answer your bank’s security question “What’s your dog’s name?” with “Fido,” guess what? You have just given a hacker potential access to your bank account.
Examples of good and bad passwords
Good passwords (but don’t use these!)
- Don’t rotate between the same two or three passwords. It’s just as bad as using the same password everywhere.
- Don’t send passwords via sites like email, Facebook, Twitter. Use another means like text message, which goes directly to the recipient. Or even better, a phone call.
- Don’t stick passwords on Post-It notes. Whether it’s under the keyboard or on a bulletin board, it’s exposed. Be like Gandalf: Keep it secret, keep it safe.
- Don’t share passwords and accounts. This is especially prevalent in small businesses. Don’t create one account then share the password; create multiple accounts for each person who needs access. More time consuming? Sure. More secure? You bet.
Tools to manage your secure passwords
With a password management tool such as 1Password, LastPass, or KeePass, all you have to remember is one master password and the software takes care of the rest. You can use the same password management tool on your computer and on your mobile devices.
But there’s a catch. Unfortunately any company can be breached by hackers and password management firms are no exception, as was demonstrated by a recent LastPass breach. In other words, passwords stored in management tools can be swept up in data breaches just like any other kind of data.
The good news is that most password managers encrypt your data, so even if hackers get hold of it, they will hopefully be hard-pressed to recover your actual passwords. That being said, you need to safeguard your master password with more vigilance than any other password you use. Please do NOT re-use your master password anywhere else! And be sure to keep another copy of your passwords somewhere safe in case you lose access to your password management tool.
Two-factor authentication (2FA) uses a password plus another unique identifier, like a passcode messaged to your phone. This is much safer than a password alone because the second identifier is constantly changing, making it much harder to break into an account. If a site offers 2FA, you should consider using it.
However, 2FA does not make a weak password safe. Your best bet is 2FA plus an excellent password. As with a password manager’s master password, you need to make absolutely sure you have copies of your 2FA backup codes, because that’s what’s going to get you into your account if you have trouble.
Password harvesting scams
Password harvesters are everywhere. For example, you might get a spam email saying you need to update your account. This message contains links to a page that looks like the real login, but it’s really just a fake designed to steal your credentials. Similarly, password-harvesting scams can be distributed via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. When in doubt, type the address for the site into your Web browser manually rather than clicking on a link.
Why not take this opportunity to change your passwords? It’s the best thing you can do to protect yourself against identity theft and cybercrime.
[Originally posted in 2010. This version has been updated with the latest advice on secure passwords.]