Protecting Your Electronic Signature
An important technique in protecting your privacy and your documents is the proper use of passwords (and possibly encryption).
Passwords are immensely valuable, whether they are for email, e-commerce sites, or even “just” a social media platform. Criminals aren't after your Spotify passwords because they want to see who your favorite artists are. They are banking on the high likelihood that the same password will unlock your email, retail Website, or even your work network. — ZoneAlarm Security Blog
Privacy isn't About Secrets
You're probably thinking that your computer doesn't contain any secrets so you don't need to worry about secure passwords.
Have you stopped to think what would happen if someone were to gain control of your computer?
How would you feel about having every document in your computer printed out and posted on a public sidewalk? That's what you're protecting.
Increasingly, We Live Online
Increasingly, our lives are lived online: banking, purchasing goods, making donations, preparing your taxes (e-filing), writing to friends and relatives, posting updates on Facebook or to a blog.
More and more people are posting growing amounts of information on their websites, blogs, Facebook accounts and elsewhere. In addition, they're increasingly accessing their financial and other critical information on-line.
If you think you're safe because you don't do these things on the Internet you're forgetting that banks, merchants and charities do all these things on-line on your behalf. (You didn't think your bank's local branches had direct lines to their main branch's computer from all across the country, did you?)
Everybody Wants Your Information
Sites like Google and Facebook now store more information about us than our governments do. Google NEVER forgets.
We learned about some of the methods the NSA used to try to capture that knowledge from the information released by Edward Snowden.
Governments worldwide use similar techniques to avoid their own privacy laws and spy on their citizens.
“We're Only Collecting Metadata”
The term “metadata” is used as though our identity is protected, but this is misleading.
Research has shown that using only call metadata, the government can determine what your religion is, if you purchased a gun or got an abortion, and other incredibly private details of your life. Former director of the NSA and CIA, Michael Hayden, recently admitted:We kill people based on metadata.And former NSA General Counsel Stu Baker said:metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody's life. If you have enough metadata, you don't really need content.— EFF [emphasis mine]
Increasingly, we can be personally identified when anonymous data is combined with other sources like credit card purchases or even public photos on Facebook using facial recognition software.
Identity Theft on the Increase
You Need to Take Responsibility
Identity theft is on the increase because people don't understand the risks of personal information nor do they understand their responsibility in protecting their own identity.
If you become the victim of identity theft, you will be fighting that for many years to come (some say indefinitely, much like the whack-a-mole game).
Passwords Protect You
As you set up accounts on Hotmail, Yahoo!, and eBay you are asked for a user name and password. Many people view these passwords as something IMPOSED upon them rather than something that protects them.
Passwords are Your Electronic Signature
Historically, kings and others used a wax seal to identify their documents as legitimate. This practice has evolved to the company seal often used on official documents. Today, we tend to use signatures and other forms of verification.
The password serves the same purpose as your signature does on paper documents like cheques, receipts or contracts. Each site's password needs to be as unique and protected just as diligently as the king would have protected his seal.
Someone having both the user name and the password can do anything you can do with those accounts: make a purchase, change your account (or cancel it) — even post damaging information about you or your business. They can do it from any Internet-connected computer anywhere in the world.
Use Complex and Unique Passwords
Don't be lazy. Generate a fresh password for every site or account that requires one. Avoid repeated phrases in your passwords that can be used to simplify the task of determining other passwords.
Users tend to use a single password at many different web sites. By now there are several reported cases where attackers breaks into a low security site to retrieve thousands of user name/password pairs and directly try them one by one at a high security e-commerce site such as eBay. As expected, this attack is remarkably effective. — Stanford Security Lab
An example where this practice cost the user $1000.
Brute Force Attacks
Brute force attacks refer to the process of testing one potential password after another until the password is discovered.
Since some combinations are more likely, the hacker will build a “dictionary” of potential passwords. This dictionary contains foreign words, places and patterns of characters that form commonly-used world-wide passwords.
Shorter Passwords Less Secure than Before
[U]sing 1.4 GB of data (two CD-ROMs) we can crack 99.9% of all alphanumerical passwords hashes…in 13.6 seconds…. — 2003 EPFL study
A more recent source indicates an even shorter period of grace:
Over two-thirds of users create simple passwords that can be hacked quickly — in less than one second, in many cases. — Ipswitch
8-Character Complex Passwords INSECURE
Emerging technology has now made 8-character passwords (including complex passwords with letters, numbers and symbols) insecure:
Using a brute force method, [a computer cluster boasting 25 AMD Radeon graphics cards] is capable of guessing every single eight-character password containing letters, numbers, and symbols in 5.5 hours. If companies use LM, an earlier password option for Windows Server, the cluster can figure out a password in six minutes. — CNET
Even if you're using a decent password, the level of security used by the sites storing our information and how the password information is transmitted can make you vulnerable.
It is very likely that sites that limit passwords to eight alpha-numeric characters aren't bothering to encrypt stored passwords, making your financial and personal information more vulnerable.
Encrypting them would remove the size-limits and provide extra security, so these password limits show great ignorance and/or contempt for their users.
Familiar Patterns Make Passwords More Vulnerable
And it's worse than that if you bring in the human factor:
People struggle to remember passwords so they use familiar names and patterns, often beginning with a capital and placing any numbers and symbols at the end.
- The mathematical potential is reduced to only 10,000 passwords used by over 98 percent of people.
- The remaining 2,342,603 (that's 99.6%) unique passwords are in use by only 0.18% of users
Your passwords need to be much longer and more complex. You should NEVER reuse passwords for multiple sites or accounts.
No Password is Completely Secure
More complex passwords safer, but not 100% secure:
an elderly Athlon 64 X2 4400+ with an SSD and the optimised tables…can, with only a 75% CPU utilisation, crack a 14 digit password with special characters, in an average of 5.3 seconds. Oechslin says that, worst case, it should be able to search arithmetically through 300 billion passwords per second — h-online.com
Nothing is Guaranteed Safe
In the same manner that no physical locking mechanism is 100% secure, we use the best passwords we can so that somebody else provides a better target.
Steve Gibson likens passwords to needles in a haystack.
If every possible password is tried, sooner or later yours will be found. The question is: will that be too soon…or enough later?
“Forgot My Password” Options Too Vulnerable
It is often easier to guess answers to the security questions posed by the default (and easily determined) “forgot my password” recovery methods than to hack the password itself. While your favourite sports team and similar responses are easy to remember, they are also easily guessed by what you've posted elsewhere or by people that know you.
Be Careful What You Post
Be careful when posting information about yourself and your family on public websites. You may be providing enough information to gain access on password-secured sites via the “forgot my password” recovery mechanisms.
Many of the questions used to regain control of webmail accounts include the sort of information that many users blindly post in Facebook while chatting: where you were born, your teachers, pets, anniversaries, family genealogy, etc.
Once hackers gain control of your email account, they can request password resets on most of your other accounts.
Create Your Own Security Question
Where possible, create your own security question and provide an answer that you'll know but that others are unlikely to know — even those that read your online posts and conversations.
Unfortunately, the option to create your own security question is seldom available. You can create false answers to the available questions but this will make it more difficult for you to recover a lost password but make your account more secure from being hacked because of your online profile.
Protecting Your Passwords
In order to maintain the security of your passwords, you should minimize the chances that your passwords are compromised by regularly changing them and by ensuring they are known only to you.
Situations where you'll want to immediately change your passwords include:
- whenever you suspect they've been compromised;
- when you give your computer to the repair shop (you can change it to a temporary password); and
- whenever someone will no longer need access, such as a terminated or transferred employee.
There have been several useful discussions about protecting passwords on Security Now! (a security podcast available in audio but transcribed in several formats).
Restrict Computer Access
Be careful who has access to your computer. Folks asking to check their mail may leave you vulnerable.
- Don't provide passwords to friends or family asking to use your computer.
- Monitor your children's computer use and be wary of their friends' access to your computer.
- Provide access using a limited access account (no administrator privileges) so they won't be able to install software or otherwise make your computer vulnverable.
- A "guest" account set up correctly can remove access to your personal files.
Restrict potentially-dangerous activities to people you trust to maintain your computer.
- Never let anyone using your computer install software that you aren't familiar with or are unsure of the source of, particularly if you won't be using it yourself.
- USB thumb drives (and CDs/DVDs) can automatically install software that copies passwords or otherwise compromises your security.
- Vulnerable websites can infect your computer, particularly when visited using a less-secure browser like Internet Explorer.
- Websites telling you that you need to update your Flash or security software on your computer may be installing malware. Only use a trusted source to download software.
Encrypting your files provides even more protection, but ensure you have backups in case something goes wrong or you may not be able to recover your own data.
You can learn more about encryption including using encryption in your communications.
You've probably noticed that sites like Google are asking for your cell phone number in addition to a password as a security backup. This newest trend is a more secure process called two-factor security. It requires the use of another device to enhance security where the password is only one part of the protection.
How to prevent hackers from accessing your online accounts includes instructions for turning on two-factor security.
- How to turn on two-factor authentication for your email accounts (Gmail, Yahoo! and Hotmail/Outlook).
- Frequently asked questions about two-step verification for Apple ID.
- How do I enable two-step verification on my DropBox account?
- How to turn on login approvals on Facebook.
- LastPass multifactor authentication options include both premium and free options. Be sure the option you choose will work with the computers and devices you use.
- How to turn on two-step verification for your LinkedIn account.
- How to turn on two-step verification for your Microsoft account.
A cell phone is something that most people have and it is usually with them at all times (and they are more frequently using it to access social media and other secured sites).
USB Device Verification
The YubiKey is a hardware authentication device, designed to provide an easy to use and secure compliment to the traditional user name and password.
Like the cellphone, a USB device like this can be used as a second level of security. Unless the person attempting to use the password has the device, the password will not be accepted.
Won't Work with All Portable Devices
USB devices are dependent upon a USB port as well as the software to make them work.
- Most portable phones and tables lack USB ports.
- Many other devices contain only a mini-USB port.
- Not every operating system is supported.
Biometric verification is an attractive alternative because it is difficult to duplicate and the technology is attainable.
Ensure Biometric Data Verified Securely
Apple introduced fingerprint scanning with their iPhone 5S. As Apple quickly learned, the issue is privacy and personal security: you don't want to be sending your biometric data to every site you log onto.
Vendors, through the Fido Alliance, are working on a standardized authentication protocol to verify your identity using a private key so that your biometric scan never leaves the device.
It is anticipated that this technology could eventually replace the tricky and risky use of passwords altogether.
Replacing Permanent Passwords
Another variation that isn't really a two-factor solution but which uses a similar process is discussed in How to kill the password: don't ask for one. Instead of entering a password, you enter an email address or phone number and the temporary password lands in your Inbox or on your cellphone. You'll do this each time, so no permanent password exists.
Of course, if your email account's password is insecure (or obtained using weak password-recovery options) this offers no security at all.
Hints for Remembering Passwords
Through 20 years of effort, we've successfully trained everyone to use passwords that are hard for humans to remember, but easy for computers to guess. — xkcd.com
Remembering complex passwords can be made easier by using “memory helpers.”
- You can use the first letter of a phrase that makes sense to you.
- For better security, we want something that combines upper & lower case letters, numbers and, where possible, symbols.
For example, the phrase "Jason plays the Grand Piano on the 2nd & 4th Fridays in December" can help you remember an otherwise difficult-to-remember 13-character password: JptGPot2&4FiD.
Avoid phrases that are easily guessed, like frequently-quoted Bible verses or company slogans.
Other Suggestions for Making Memorable Passwords
These resources contain other methods of creating memorable passwords and have suggestions for choosing word bases. Be sure that you're using words that are hard to guess and don't use common alternative characters, patterns, etc.
- How To Create A Memorable And Unbreakable Password In 3 Minutes.
- How to Create a Password You Can Remember.
Where the suggestions conflict with the advice on this page, you might want to modify or not use those methods.
Avoid Patterns in Passwords
If a pattern is evident in your passwords, then your lessen the security of the password.
- If you use the site name or address as part of the “recognition” pattern to help you (such as google23s32), this will weaken your passwords.
- Dates are generally not a good idea as they follow consistent patterns (some variation of MMDDYY or MMDDYYYY, etc.).
- Avoid the common pattern of beginning with a capital and placing any numbers and symbols at the end.
However, by using patterns that are unique to us (e.g. not copied from Shakespeare or easily guessed by the nature of your site) you can have a more secure password that you can remember.
Be Careful With Lists
Be conscious of how you keep records of your passwords and don't use vulnerable locations which can easily be compromised.
- Don't keep passwords on Post-it notes stuck onto your monitor where visitors and other employees can see them.
- However, you can disguise a single password within a list of waybills or invoices if such a list would logically be found in a similar setting (such as an office).
- If you keep a list of passwords in a file on your computer, be sure it isn't obvious. For example, a document called “Passwords” is vulnerable (or any likely name that can be searched for).
Password software that will help to remember your passwords and to create secure passwords for you is a much better idea.
Password software includes software that stores passwords securely as well as software that generates passwords.
Remember, there are differing levels of security in these methods and all are subject to the vulnerability of the master password. Use only reliable and secure password software.
Web Browser Capabilities
Web browsers have the capability of remembering passwords for you.
- Ideally, this should be used on a single-user computer with a secure password.
- If there are multiple users on your computer, each person should have their own log-in identity, protected with a unique and secure password.
- You should NEVER use this software to “remember” passwords for on-line banking and other critical sites.
Passwords stored by the browser are known to be potentially vulnerable:
[H]ow browsers store your passwords, and why in some cases you shouldn't let them. However, it would be unfair to end the post saying that browsers are completely unreliable at storing passwords. For example, in the case of Firefox, if a strong Master Password is chosen, account details are very unlikely to be harvested. — Texas Tech Security Group
- Firefox was the most secure (if a strong Master Password is chosen).
- Internet Explorer ranged from very unsecure to quite secure (depending upon the version).
- Chrome was not a good choice for storing passwords.
Regardless of the browser you're using, I'd strongly recommend moving to LastPass for password storage with the added benefit that it can be accessed on all your devices.
The vulnerability of a browser's password security is demonstrated when LastPass offers to import then disable your browser's stored passwords.
Password Storage Software
If you separate the password function from the browser using an external program, you increase your security — provided you use a secure complex password to protect it.
For Storing Passwords on One Device
The following password storage software uses encryption to protect your passwords on one device:
- Password Safe is a free secure password storage utility designed by Bruce Schneier using the Blowfish algorithm for encryption. This software keeps all your passwords secure with access protected by single password and provides several methods of adding and extracting your passwords.
- KeePass is a free (open-source) password manager or safe which helps you to manage your passwords in a secure way using AES and Twofish encryption. Versions are available for Windows and Linux.
Sharing Passwords Between Devices
People are commonly using several devices, including smart phones and tablets to access the Internet as well as their home and work computers. Sharing passwords across devices is tricky unless you have an online service.
I recommend LastPass, a free free online password manager and form filler:
- Your sensitive data is encrypted locally before upload so even LastPass cannot get access to it.
- LastPass is safe from the Heartbleed bug, a vulnerability in the software that protects secure (HTTPS) servers that allows stealing of information normally protected by SSL/TLS encryption. It also verifies that the sites you're logging into with LastPass are safe.
- LastPass users can click on Security Check in your vault to learn what passwords need updating as a result of the Heartbleed bug.
- LastPass will generate complex passwords so you don't have to.
- LastPass will log you into sites automatically. It watches you log in the first time and offers to remember the process.
- Everything is secured by one password, so make sure you use something only you can remember but is not easily hacked (you only need to remember this one password).
- LastPass Premium provides access to your mobile devices for only $1 per month (billed at US$12 per year).
- LastPass multifactor authentication options include both premium and free options. Be sure the option you choose will work with the computers and devices you use.
Making LastPass Convenient
Check your browser's website for suitable addons. Firefox is reported to have the most user-friendly options.
PwdHash Password Generating Software
- PwdHash, by Collin Jackson (Stanford University) uses a general password to create a secure password for each site based upon a "hash" of the site domain and your chosen master password.
- There is a PwdHash Firefox Addon.
PwdHash generates relatively-short passwords without any non-alpha or non-numeric elements (and therefore not recommended):
For example, Alex King's PwdHash version generated the password aC5WhcM7Ny for “http://www.google.ca/” when using “Password” as the key.
If anyone guesses your master password, they'll know your password for every site.
Updated: January 2, 2016