Passwords, Dinosaurs, and 8-Track Tapes

What do passwords dinosaurs and 8 track tapes all have in common? Pretty soon they will all be in the same category: things of the past! It’s not just a matter of people using short, simple, “stupid” passwords any more. With advances in easily available and cheap computing power such as advanced graphics processors and solid state drives (SSDs), even long and complex passwords can be cracked in seconds! Not to mention the fact that if you get hacked and someone installs a keylogging Trojan on your machine, it doesn’t matter how long and complex a password you use; it’s game over!

There are always big concerns about the “exploit du jour” in the information security field. SQL injection, application hacks, XSS, Bots – you name it! But ever since the start the number one way computers get hacked is because of password problems. It’s still going on today! No matter what system one tests, it seems someone has a password of “password” or “admin” or something dumb like that. Or someone forgets to change a blank SA password or forgets to change the default password in some application. Then, of course, there are the system admins who use the same passwords for their user and admin accounts. Instant privilege elevation is given to domain admin and, once again, game over! This is really just a problem of human nature. We all have ambitions to follow the password policies exactly, to use strong passwords all the time, use different passwords for every account, change them on a regular basis, and never reuse the same ones twice, etc. But we all get lazy, or complacent or busy or forget or just screw up! Like I say – human nature.

What is the upshot of all this? Passwords alone as a security measure are hopelessly inadequate. And they always have been! So what is the answer? Well, obviously, we need to use something in addition to passwords. Ideally it would be preferable to use all three of the possible authentication techniques: something we know, something we have and something we are. But it’s hard enough to get people and organizations to consider even two of the three. There is TREMENDOUS resistance against insisting that everyone use tokens for example. And I can understand that. They cost money, you always have to remember to have them with you, they might break at the most awkward of moments, they can be stolen or they can be lost. Same thing with biometrics. They are expensive, they are not always reliable, they can be often be circumvented and they may leave you open to personal attack or even kidnapping! These are all real issues that need to be addressed and, what’s more, gotten used to. People are just going to eventually come to the realization that one or more of these techniques MUST be used. Until now, though, people have been willing to accept the consequences rather than bite the bullet and put up with the hassles and expense. The tipping point has yet to be reached. But, with identity theft, cyber crime and the increasing ease with which passwords can be stolen or broken that point is now very close indeed!

In the mean time, we all should REALLY do a much better job in using strong passwords. The new MINIMUM standard for passwords should be 12 characters and they should use at least three of the four possible character types. And that’s just for normal folks. For system admins and other high value access passwords alone should never be enough. These folks should surely be using multi-part authentication techniques no matter what the expense or hassle. After all, they DO hold the keys to the kingdom for all of us!

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