How to master the art of passwords

With no easy and reliable alternative to passwords in sight, you either have to memorize cryptic passphrases or use a password manager to access networks, systems, and online services.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
4 min read

Passwords are a way of life for nearly everybody who uses any kind of software. No viable alternative is imminent: fingerprint readers, retina scanners, voice identification, and USB tokens all have limitations. Nothing is as simple and inexpensive as an old-fashioned string of keystrokes.

Web services and network managers nearly always require a minimum degree of password difficulty to prevent standard password-cracking techniques from guessing them quickly. We're also cautioned not to reuse the same passphrases on different sites and are routinely blocked from recycling the passwords we've used previously.

Considering the number of times PC users sign into a service or network each day, we may need to remember a half-dozen hard-to-guess passwords, not to mention the various sign-in IDs we use along with the passwords (full name or first initial-last name? Case sensitive? An e-mail address?). Many computer professionals need access to dozens of secure systems, which stretches the limits of anyone's memory.

Your three options are to use a password-management program, to write your passwords down on paper (or record them in an encrypted text file), or to devise a method for memorizing hard-to-guess passphrases. While no single technique is right for everyone, here's why I suggest the memorization approach.

The pros and cons of password managers
For many people, the best way to protect their data and identity is to use a password manager, which either stores your passwords in the cloud or on a local drive--often a USB thumb drive or other portable storage device. The obvious risk is that the vendor's server is hacked or you lose the drive that stores your passwords.

Last May, the LastPass password-management service reported a breach that may have exposed users' passwords, although LastPass CEO Joe Siegrist stated that people who used strong master passwords were not threatened.

LastPass is available as a Firefox add-on and as an extension for Internet Explorer, Chrome, and other browsers. The version for mobile devices costs $1 per month.

Other password managers work without storing your passwords on a Web server. The Tech Support Alert site recently compared several free password-management programs, including LastPass, RoboForm, and KeePass.

The hard-copy approach to password management
If you forgo the password-manager route, your options are to write your passphrases down or to memorize them. Whenever you record your passwords on paper--even if you record only a mnemonic that reminds you of the actual characters--you've made your accounts a little more susceptible to unauthorized access.

That hasn't stopped computer experts from recommending that users jot down their passwords and keep the paper in a secure location. Gunter Ollman, a researcher for security firm Damballa, concludes that recording your passwords on paper is the lesser of several password evils; more risky is using the same password at multiple sites, setting your software to remember passwords, failing to change passwords frequently, using an easy-to-guess password, and reusing past passwords.

Likewise, computer expert Bruce Schneier reiterated on his Schneier on Security blog the advice of Microsoft executive Jesper Johansson to record your passwords on paper to encourage use of strong passwords.

The obvious downside of the paper approach is that someone will find the paper taped to the bottom of your keyboard or tucked into your wallet and access your private data before you're able to take preventive measures. Or you may simply lose the paper and have to do the recover-password-by-e-mail two-step for each network and service you need to access.

The wetware approach to password storage is still the safest
As you might have guessed, Mr. Schneier's 2005 post recommending that you write down your passwords generated quite a few comments to the contrary. Most of the commenters suggested their own technique for remembering strong passwords.

Of course, the bad guys pay close attention to this information and will attempt to incorporate the approaches in their password-cracking efforts. The key is to get creative in altering something you've already memorized, such as song lyrics, family members' first names, or place names from your past.

An alternative method leverages something nearby. For example, there may be a product near your workstation that has a prominent model or serial number, or a book within view of your seat has an ISBN number on the back cover. Rather than using the exact number, add or subtract two or three numbers or letters, so "1158748562" becomes "3370960784," or "BCGA1339" becomes "DEIC3551."

The only problem I've encountered with my own password-mnemonic creation is that some vendors require a mix of upper and lower case letters and numbers. I have become resigned to having to go through Apple's "Forgot your password?" e-mail routine about every other week.

This is doubly upsetting because my system uses from 12 to 16 random alphabetic characters (found in no dictionary and following no discernible pattern). As the How Secure Is My Password site indicates, the all-text, all-lower-case password I devised would take much more effort to crack than an eight-character password that meets Apple's requirements.

How Secure Is My Password site
Check the strength of your passwords at the How Secure Is My Password site, which indicates how difficult your password is to crack, and whether it's on the site's common-password list. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

However, I give props to Apple and other sites that enforce strict password-creation policies, as well as to network managers who do the same. Efforts are underway to address the strong-password conundrum. As CNET contributor Lance Whitney described in post last week, Microsoft is working to improve the password-management capabilities of Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10.

Only time will tell whether PC users will ever be able to securely store their sign-in credentials in their systems' software or on a service's Web server. For most people, the safest approach to passwords is to rely only on their own personal gray matter. Let's hope a secure alternative to passwords arrives before our memories give out.