You probably use a number of personal identification numbers (PINs), passwords, and passphrases every day: from getting money from the ATM or using your debit card in a store, to logging in to your email or into an online retailer. Keeping track of all of the number, letter, and word combinations may be frustrating at times, but you’ve seen enough news coverage to know that hackers represent a real threat to your information. Often, an attack is not specifically about your account, but about using the access to your information to launch a larger attack.
One of the best ways to protect information or physical property is to ensure that only authorized people have access to it. Verifying that those requesting access are the people they claim to be is the next step. This authentication process is more important and more difficult in the cyber world. Passwords are the most common means of authentication, but only work if they are complex and confidential. Many systems and services have been successfully breached because of insecure and inadequate passwords. Once a system is compromised, it’s open to exploitation by other unwanted sources
How to choose good passwords
Avoid common mistakes
Most people use passwords that are based on personal information and are easy to remember. However, that also makes it easier for an attacker to crack them. Consider a four-digit PIN. Is yours a combination of the month, day, or year of your birthday? Does it contain your address or phone number? Think about how easy it is to find someone’s birthday or similar information. What about your email password—is it a word that can be found in the dictionary? If so, it may be susceptible to dictionary attacks, which attempt to guess passwords based on common words or phrases.
Although intentionally misspelling a word ("daytt" instead of "date") may offer some protection against dictionary attacks, an even better method is to rely on a series of words and use memory techniques, or mnemonics, to help you remember how to decode it. For example, instead of the password "hoops," use "IlTpbb" for "[I] [l]ike [T]o [p]lay [b]asket[b]all." Using both lowercase and capital letters adds another layer of obscurity. Changing the same example used above to "Il!2pBb." creates a password very different from any dictionary word.
Length and complexity
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed specific guidelines for strong passwords. According to NIST guidance, you should consider using the longest password or passphrase permissible (16–64 characters) when you can. For example, "Pattern2baseball#4mYmiemale!" would be a strong password because it has 28 characters. It also includes the upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. You may need to try different variations of a passphrase—some applications limit the length of passwords, some do not accept spaces or certain special characters. Avoid common phrases, famous quotations, and song lyrics.
Treat your mobile devices the same way you do a desktop or laptop computer. These devices allow you the same access to the Internet and can also expose your information if not treated correctly.
- Enable strong password protection.
- Enable an automatic screen lock after a length of inactivity (recommend 1 minute).
- If available, implement anti-malware tools.