Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services


Two-factor Security | Remembering | Password Software | Generating Passwords

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

A surprising number of people share passwords (often insecurely), yet don't change them afterwards. See this infographic.

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 their nearly-perfect facial recognition software.

Learn more about the threats to your privacy….

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).

Learn more about identity theft….

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

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.

File Encryption

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.

The U.S. government wants to ban encryption or place a backdoor into it. They blame either terrorists or child pornography, but the reality is that they just want access into everyone's computer.

You can learn more about encryption including using encryption in your communications.

Return to top

Two-factor Security

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.

Cell Phones

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).

The YubiKey is designed as an easy compliment to traditional passwords

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

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.

Microsoft provides biometric verification in Windows 10 with Windows Hello, provided you have the supporting hardware.

Intel True Key allows you to sign in with your face or fingerprint (on supporting hardware) and provides optional two-factor security.

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.

Return to top

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. —

Memory Helpers

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.

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.

Return to top

Password Software

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:

LastPass is a free online password generator and manager (and provides access to your mobile devices for only $1 per month)
  • 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

There are several addons for Firefox that make using this increased security more convenient including the LastPass Firefox Addon.

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.

Significant Flaws

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 “” when using “Password” as the key.

If anyone guesses your master password, they'll know your password for every site.

Return to top
Updated: July 14, 2016

Use unique passwords for every site you are required to log into

Generating Passwords

The problem with creating passwords is that we tend to be creatures of habit, looking to memorable patterns and recognizable signals. These may be great in remembering your passwords, but not conducive to creating secure passwords.

Use an Automated Password Generator

Using a program or site to generate passwords avoids these issues. Password generators are the electronic versions of the one-time coding pads you read about in spy novels or history books.

  • Gibson Research Corporation provides an Ultra High Security Password Generator on their site that generates a new set of passwords every time the browser is refreshed. There are three sets generated — use the middle line where possible.
  • PwdHash is software that generates passwords based partly upon the site your create it for.

Random Passwords Better

Random-generated passwords provide better security because users are unable to select passwords that are easily compromised.

The use of forced random passwords at MyBART provided an interesting look at the effectiveness of using random passwords when the site was hacked. The discussion following the article provides additional insights.

Make Passwords Long, Strong and Complex

Make sure your passwords are difficult to guess and make sure that your passwords are not easily discoverable. When generating passwords, make them long, strong and complex.

Make Them Long

Passwords should be at least 8 characters long (but remember the warning about the vulnerability of 8-character passwords, so make them 15–20 or longer where the site will allow it).

  • If you're using the 4 digits of your bank card, you're just asking to be the victim of identity theft.
  • If the site only allows short passwords with letters and numbers that site is probably storing them insecurely.
  • Secure sites that allow long and complex passwords are forced to encrypt them to save space.

Make Them Strong

Password strength refers to an assessment of how difficult it would be to break a password using current (or sometimes anticipated) technologies.

  • Sites that provide a tool to assess password strength encourage the creation of more secure passwords.
  • Wikipedia's password strength entry includes examples of weak passwords such as the default passwords supplied by vendors (e.g. “admin”) and passwords that are more vulnerable to a “dictionary” attack.
  • Many sites will indicate an approximation of the strength of your password. (Remember, there is the possibility that your results are being tracked and recorded on any site that offers to check the strength of your password, but you can use it as a learning tool to see the differences between potential “test” passwords.)

Make Them Complex

Passwords should not be easily discovered words such as your family members' names, your pets, girlfriends, favourite sports teams, etc.

  • Be careful where you post personal information.
  • One man hacked dozens of women's email accounts by using the information the women posted on Facebook to answer the typical questions asked when recovering a lost password.

Passwords should not be simple phrases or common combinations such as variations of password, qwerty or 123456 as these are easily guessed.

  • Avoid simple substitutions like 3 for e (flow3r) or 0 for o (passw0rd).
  • The challenges of creating complex passwords on smart phones and tablets has led to people using patterns like “7” or “Z” on the number pad. There are only so many of these combinations, making them particularly easy to check.
  • If you can say it (even with variations like “password with a zero”) it can be compromised in as little as one second using a dictionary attack.
  • Password Reuse Visualizer (a Firefox addon) shows where you're using similar passwords in an interesting graphical display.
In one 2010 case study, the top three compromised passwords were 123456, password and 12345678. —

Some sites now will not allow passwords without certain criteria including disallowing repeated characters or common patterns and will not allow you to reuse previous passwords.This protects both the site and its users from being an attractive target for hackers.

Make Them Random

You should preferably use complex random characters if the particular site supports that. They should contain a random combination of letters and numbers interspersed with other characters where possible.

  • Using mixed upper and lower case gives you effectively 52 letters to work from instead of 26.
  • The 10 digits (numbers) and the various other legal characters (such as the pound key, hyphen and the underscore) significantly increase the security of your passwords.

The allowed legal characters can vary by site. Most will allow all letters and numbers, but some symbols (like a slash, backslash or chevron brackets) may not be allowed.

  • Using a longer selection and correcting for the disallowed symbols will still provide for a stronger password of sufficient length.
  • Some ISPs will only let you create an all-lower-case password, but will let you change that later. Make that extra effort to ensure your account remains secure.

Memory Challenges

This obviously makes them much harder to remember. You can use some techniques to help you remember them, but a password service like LastPass (using a long-strong-complex password that you can remember) is probably a better solution. Newer technologies like facial recognition and other biometric data (e.g. fingerprint scanning) are coming available but could be compromised if the comparative data is stored anywhere but on the local computer or device.

Network & Router Passwords

Don't ignore the need to secure your network. You should change your router password from the default set by the manufacturer.

Avoid the WPS push-button connection option. WPS is vulnerable to brute-force attacks.

Since the passwords used to generate pre-shared keys are configured into the network only once, and do not need to be entered by their users every time, the best practice is to use the longest possible password and never worry about your password security again. —

Return to top

Related Resources

Related resources on this site:

or check the resources index.

Return to top

If these pages helped you,
buy me a coffee!