Managing Your Computer and Internet Passwords
We are a password-obsessed society. We so value our privacy and security, as we should, that just about every website and service we access has to be protected by a password or personal identification number (PIN).
All that is well and good and absolutely necessary. The problem is that with so many passwords in our possession, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember them all. Short of using a single password for multiple sites (a big security no-no), how can you best manage all the passwords you use – while making each of these passwords as hard to guess as possible?
It can be done – with a little planning.
Creating More Secure Passwords
Let’s start with the concept of passwords in general. Just about every website that houses private information requires one for access. That means you have a password for your online banking, of course, but also to log into Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, eBay, and so forth. You’ll also need passwords to log into any paid services online, such as Netflix and Spotify, as well as to online retailers such as Amazon.com and the iTunes Store. And don’t forget the password you use to log into your computer!
It’s important that you use passwords to block unauthorized access to your accounts and data. However, it’s a well-known fact that the password is actually the weakest link in the security chain. That’s because too many users don’t use passwords at all (which is the online equivalent of leaving the front door of your house open), or use passwords that are too easily guessed or cracked.
To better protect your important information, then, you need to make your passwords as secure as possible. There are three steps to this process.
Step 1: Make It Hard to Guess
The first step is to create passwords that are difficult to guess. The unfortunate fact is that many users, when prompted to create a password for this website or that account, come up with names or phrases that are easy for them to remember. (It’s only natural – who wants a password that you can’t remember?) The most common passwords, then, are derived from social security numbers, street addresses, children’s names, pets’ names, and the like.
The conundrum is that a password that is easy for you to remember is also easy for others to guess; it’s better to avoid using real words you might find in a typical dictionary. Also, don’t use easily guessed words, like your middle name or your wife’s maiden name or the name of your dog or cat. Better to use nonsense words, or random combinations or letters and numbers – anything that won’t be found in a dictionary.
Not that the bad guys actually sit down at a computer and manually enter different words and phrases into a site’s password field. That’s not the way things work. Instead, most crackers automate the task by using special password cracker software that operates at computer speed to enter thousands of possible passwords every second. If a password is short and simple, one of these programs can crack it in a matter of seconds. If the password is long and complex, it might take days to crack – if it can be cracked at all.
Step 2: Make It Longer and More Complex
This brings us to out next tip for creating more secure passwords, which is this: The longer and more complex your password is, the harder it will be to crack.
All you need to do is increase the length of the password (8 characters is better than 6 – and way better than 4) and use a combination of letters, numbers, and special characters (!@#$%). You should also use a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, if a particular account lets you use case-sensitive passwords.
The result might look nonsensical but will be very difficult to crack. And that’s the whole point of a password, isn’t it?
Step 3: Create Different Passwords for Each Account
Finally, you need to create unique passwords for each of your online accounts. That is, you don’t want to use the same password to access both your Facebook and Twitter (or PayPal and Netflix) accounts.
Yes, using a single password for multiple accounts is easier for you to remember, but it also opens the door to tons of problems if a bad guy hacks that password. Crack the password once and the bad guy can use it to access all your online accounts – including your online banking. You want to make things harder for hackers, which means making them guess at different passwords for different accounts.
By the way, if you want to check the strength of a given password, try Microsoft’s online Password Checker. Just enter the password and the Password Checker tells you how secure it is.
How to Create a Strong but Memorable Password
So you need to create a long, difficult-to-guess password for each of the websites and services you use. This provides the most security for your online data and accounts – but it’s also quite difficult to manage on a day-to-day basis. You actually have to remember all those complex passwords, which becomes more difficult the more sites and services you use online.
There are some tricks you can use to create strong (i.e. long and complex) passwords that are also somewhat easy for you to remember. Consider one or more of these approaches:
- Stitch together multiple words into one. Come up with three or more small words then enter them all together as a single word. For example, if you own a red Honda Civic, tie all those words together into the single password redhondacivic. For increased security, capitalize every third letter, like this: RedHonDacIviC.
- Turn a sentence into password. Pick a phrase that means something to you then enter that phrase as a single password. For example, “I am Spartacus” becomes the password iamspartacus (or, with capitalization, IamSpartacus).
- Use the first letters in a longer sentence. Take a longer sentence and use the first letters of each word as the password. For example, “Once upon a time in a galaxy far far away” turns into the password ouatiagffa.
- Take a word or phrase and remove the vowels. For example, “I have a dream” becomes the password hvdrm.
- Take a word or phrase, remove the vowels, but then add the vowels to the end. Back to “I have a dream,” this gives you the password hvdrmiaeea
- Take a word or phrase and replace the vowels with numbers. You can use either consecutive or random numbers. Using our “I have a dream” example, you’d come up with the password 1h2v34dr56m.
- Take a word or phrase and write it backwards. “I have a dream” becomes maerdevahi.
- Take a word or phrase and write it using the numbers associated with those letters on a telephone keypad. With this approach, the letters A, B, and C are all turned into the number 2. Sticking with “I have a dream,” this gives you the password 74283237986.
- Take a number that means something to you and represent each character in roman numerals. For example, the number 1492 is thus turned into the password iivixii.
- Take a word or phrase and then shift your fingers on the keyboard one position to the left or write. Drop any characters that shift off the keyboard. As an example, “I have a dream” shifted to the left becomes ugcwswen.
- Add a number to the end of whatever password you have. This can be the current year or month/year combination, or just a number that means something to you.
These are just a few of the approaches you can employ to turn easily remembered words and phrases into difficult-to-crack passwords. You can combine several of these methods for even stronger passwords.
And don’t forget to change your passwords on a regular basis. The longer you leave a password on a site, the greater the chances it can be cracked. Change your passwords frequently – monthly or quarter at the longest.
Software and Apps for Managing Multiple Passwords
Creating stronger passwords is great, but you still have to create different passwords for different sites. How do you remember them all?
The simplest approach is to write them down. The problem with this approach is that a thief could break into your home or office and steal your password list – and thus have easy access to all your online accounts. So if you go this route, hide your password list somewhere physically secure.
Most web browsers let you save passwords for the websites you visit. While this makes things easier for you (nothing to remember – except on those secure sites, such as banking sites, that don’t enable browser-based password storage) this approach actually diminishes your security. That’s because there are numerous password cracking tools designed just for the purpose of extricating passwords from web browsers. Probably not the best idea.
A better approach is to use a software application or web service that stores and manages your password for you. With this type of password vault you enter all the passwords for all the sites you visit, and then lock them in with one master password. You only have to remember the single master password; the password vault tool enters the right password for each site, automatically.
There are several of these password vault tools available. Here’s a half dozen or so of the top tools available:
- 1Password. This tool places your password database in a special Dropbox account, so your passwords can be synched across multiple computers. (Or mobile phones, for that matter.) It can generate passwords up to 30 characters in length, which is pretty darned strong. It costs $50 for Windows and Mac users, or $17.99 for the iOS version.
- Clipperz. This tool stores not just passwords, but also other form information required by various websites. It’s currently free, although the company says it will eventually start charging for it.
- Kapersky Password Manager. What makes this tool different from the others is that you enter all your passwords with your mouse instead of the keyboard, effectively foiling keystroke tracking tools. Other than that, it generates random passwords for each site you visit and stores them all in a local vault. The software costs $24.95.
- KeePass Password Safe. This one’s a software program that stores your passwords locally, on your computer’s hard drive – although it does let you synch your passwords across multiple devices via DropBox functionality. KeePass is all open source, which means it’s free.
- Keeper. Keeper helps manage passwords on both computers and mobile devices, backing up all your passwords in the cloud. There’s a basic plan that’s free, and a more comprehensive plan that costs $9.99/year.
- LastPass. This password management tool is actually a cloud-based browser plug-in. It automatically detects password forms on websites, generates strong passwords for each site, and stores those passwords on its own cloud servers. Then, when you revisit a website, LastPass automatically fills in the password for you. The computer-only version is free; if you want to use LastPass with your mobile devices, you need the Premium plan that costs $12/year.
- RoboForm. This software is similar to Clipperz in that it stores both passwords and other form-based data. The free version lets you store up to ten passwords; choose the Everywhere version ($9.95/year) to get unlimited password storage on all your desktop and mobile devices.
All of these password management apps do what they’re supposed to do – generate and help you manage multiple strong passwords, often on multiple devices. They’re worth checking out, especially if you find yourself often forgetting the passwords to some of the sites you visit less frequently.