Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

The Word On Passwords


Many computers require a password to operate. When there are multiple users—or just many people with physical access—passwords make sense. When you’re home alone with your personal computer, they don’t. Either way, it’s possible to boot up a PC and acquire its files without providing a password. So, do passwords provide real security or just a blanket?

In the secure environment of large computers, passwords are essential. Since few people have physical access, boot up bypass is not a problem. But many people have remote access, and therein lies the larger problem. However, passwords are only as good as their maintenance. One of the biggest hacks of sensitive computers back in the 80s was possible largely because systems administrators didn’t change the factory’s default passwords. (See The Cuckoo’s Egg, by Clifford Stoll.)

Today’s personal computers (or cell phones or tablets) may not really need passwords for access, but they all demand passwords for the many Internet sites they visit. Some people try to get away with one password for everything. Others use easy to remember passwords, e.g.., birthdays that are easy to detect. A third shortcut that makes hacker’s work easier is using common words.

The demand for passwords (and security questions, etc.) expanded so fast that password management quickly got out of hand. I’ve seen experts recommend not keeping passwords in your computer, using paper instead. How many sticky notes can you keep track of? There are some good, free password management (and password generator) programs. Less complicated is keeping them in a password-protected encrypted file. My file has well over 50, and now I only have to remember its password.

In addition, the program I use to protect that file gives me the option of seeing the password as I type. Why not, since no one’s looking over my shoulder? It’s a simple option but rarely offered. Wouldn’t you know if someone can see what you type? Yet, that option is available for less than 10 percent of requested passwords online. Why?

The big problem with passwords is remembering them. A password file (or program or some system) doesn’t strain your brain. And you can copy the password from a file and paste it in when requested. No more typing errors means you can use more complex passwords. That’s security.

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