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
Have you stopped to think what would happen if someone were to gain control of your computer?
You're thinking that your computer doesn't contain any secrets, but how would you feel about having every document in your computer printed out and posted on a public sidewalk?
Increasingly, Our Lives are Online
Increasingly, our lives are lived on-line: banking, purchasing goods, making donations using PayPal or a credit card, preparing your taxes (or e-filing), writing to friends and relatives, posting on Facebook or a blog.
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 from all across the country, did you?)
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 or 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 a 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
The password serves the same purpose as your signature does on paper documents like cheques or a contract. It needs to be as unique and protected just as diligently.
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) and post damaging information about you or your business.
Use Complex and Unique Passwords
Don't be lazy. Generate a fresh password for every site or account that requires one. The same password on a site with weak security will allow the more secure sites to be compromised.
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 username/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 or “Dictionary” 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” (a list of potential passwords, not just words listed by Webster's).
Shorter Passwords Less Secure than Before
[U]sing 1.4GB 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.
8-Character Complex Passwords Now Insufficient
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.
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 result?
- 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
Nothing is Guaranteed Safe
In the same manner that no physical locking mechanism is 100% secure, we use the best 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?
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 part of the protection.
A cell phone is something that most people have and it is usually with them at all times (and they are more often 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 username 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.
Biometric verification is an attractive alternative because it is difficult to duplicate and the technology is attainable. 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.
Your Website/Blog/Facebook Account at Risk
More and more people are posting growing amounts of information on their website, blog, Facebook account and elsewhere. In addition, they're increasingly accessing their financial and other critical information on-line.
We're becoming more and more connected electronically. Sites like Google and Facebook now store more information about us than our governments do. 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.
These resources are only as safe as long as the password is secure. 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 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.
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 to your accounts.
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, marriage anniversaries, family genealogy, etc. It is easier to guess answers to the security questions posed by the “forgot my password” than to hack the password itself.
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.
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 an employee.
There have been several useful discussions about protecting passwords on Security Now! (a security podcast available in audio but transcribed in several formats).
Be careful who has access to your computer. Restrict potentially-dangerous activities to people you trust to maintain your computer.
- Don't provide passwords to friends or family asking to use your computer.
- Better still, provide a "guest" account without access to your personal files.
- Never let anyone using your computer install software that you aren't familiar with or won't be using.
- USB thumb drives can automatically install software that copies passwords or otherwise compromises your security.
- Monitor your children's computer use and provide their own access with a limited access account (no administrator privileges — they'll be unable to install 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.
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 avoid these issues. These 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 it 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.
- Test your password on Microsoft's check your password — is it strong?
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 verifying a lost password.
Passwords should not be simple phrases or common combinations such as variations of password, qwerty or 123456.
- Avoid simple substitutions like 3 for e (flow3r) or 0 for o (passw0rd) as these are easily guessed.
- 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 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 forward or 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.
Network & Router Passwords
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.
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.
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.
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 vary the suggestions against the other advice on this page (e.g. the use of common alternative characters, patterns, etc.).
- How To Create A Memorable And Unbreakable Password In 3 Minutes.
- How to Create a Password You Can Remember.
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 (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 password within a list of waybills, 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. A document called “Passwords” is vulnerable.
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
You can use the password-remembering capabilities of your web browser:
- 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.
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 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).
- The LastPass Firefox Addon provides a convenient access to your free LastPass account.
- LastPass Premium provides access to your mobile devices for only $1 per month (billed at US$12 per year).
Making Access Convenient
Check your browser's website for suitable addons.
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:
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.
More About Related Issues
Protecting Your Online Identity
The following related pages offer more information about protecting your online identity:
- Avoiding Spam — Unsolicited Emails and Mailing Lists
- Phishing & Identity Theft — Obtaining Information by Deceit
- Proper Email Address Etiquette — Using To:, CC: & BCC: Correctly
Securing Your Computer
The following related pages offer more information about securing your computer:
- Security Basics — Preventing Unauthorized Access
- Security Strategies — Avoiding Infections
- Firewalls — Your First Line of Defense
- ZoneAlarm Security — Recommended Firewall Products
- Anti-Virus Protection — Current Alerts, Strategies, Hoaxes & Software
- Encryption — Protecting Your Data
- Your Privacy At Risk — Spyware Detection & Removal
- Web Security — Vulnerabilities in Internet Software
- Windows Security — Vulnerabilities in Windows
Updated: February 4, 2014