Raising awareness quickly: a look at basic password hygiene

Steve Ragan
20 October, 2013
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Continuing a running series for National Cyber Security Awareness Month, Rapid7 has released another easily emailed awareness note. This time the topic is passwords, something that can either make or break a person’s overall level of security.

Passwords are often seen as a lacklustre method of protection, and in many cases this is true if passwords are the only line of defence. This is why two-factor authentication is such a big deal in the security world.

However, love them or hate them, passwords are the initial line of defence in our daily lives. But that crossover leaves people stuck attempting to remember several passwords and manage them properly, something that usually means that they’ll create an easily remembered and crackable password once and use it everywhere.

“While security professionals can enforce policy on a password’s length, expiration and use of character types, only educated users can create truly strong passwords that they will remember and avoid using elsewhere,” says Rapid7.

With that said, what follows is an easily copied primer on passwords, which can be emailed to your entire organisation.

Why are passwords important?

Having a password is the most basic level of protection you can have for the information you are storing in services or applications, be it your personal Facebook account, your online banking site or your company’s customer tracking system. The problem is that everything is online now, and everything needs a password. So it’s tempting to make your password simple and easy to remember. Perhaps you have a go-to password you’ve used for everything since college. Or maybe you write your password down so you don’t forget it.

If you do any of those things, you’re probably in the majority, not the minority. Creating long, complex passwords that are unique for every service you use is a challenge, and remembering them all is near impossible. The problem is that simple, easy to remember passwords are also easy to ‘crack’. That’s probably why a major study found that 76 percent of network intrusions (aka breaches) in 2012 involved weak or stolen passwords.

Once attackers have your password, they have access to your account and any information stored in it. From there, they may be able to do all sorts of things, and what was intended as a form of protection could become a threat in itself. For example, if you use the same password across multiple sites, once an attacker has compromised your information on an unimportant one, they can turn around and use it on a site you do care about.

Or say you use different passwords, but the same security questions. They could find the information for your security questions and then set up a fake ‘change password’ request using your information and actually lock you out of an important account.

Bottom line: passwords are an important security measure for every aspect of your life, including work.

How can you protect yourself?

There are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk and increase the protection offered by passwords.

Make passwords long and complex. Try to make your password more than 12 characters long and use at least one lower case character, one upper case character, one number and one special character. Shamefully, not all sites have enabled this yet, so it may not always be possible, but do it where you can. Try stringing unconnected words together and mixing up the letters, numbers and special characters to make them extra hard to guess.

Don’t reuse passwords. It is very difficult to remember unique passwords across everything. You can tackle this by using a service, like KeePass and LastPass, which securely stores your passwords. All you need to remember is the password for your KeePass account! If you do reuse passwords across sites, be vigilant for any suspicious activity and at the first sign of trouble, change the password on any other sites where it was used.

Regularly change your password. Passwords should be changed every eight to 12 weeks. Yes it’s a hassle, but if an attacker has gained access without you knowing, it stops them from being able to keep coming back over and over again.

Two-factor authentication. Where possible, favour services that offer two-factor authentication and enable it. The way this typically works is that it combines something you know (your password) with something you have (e.g. a generated code sent to your phone) to provide a double layer of protection.

Never use a default password. Many devices and applications come with default passwords set up. You need to change these as soon as possible during your set up process. Using a default password is the same as using no password at all.

by Steve Ragan, CSO Online

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