The Spaceballs Method to Password Security

Man surrounded by question marks thinking

In the 1987 movie Spaceballs there’s a scene were they need a password to get past a planet’s defenses.  The code turns out to be “12345”.  Mel Brooks’ character exclaims “12345?  That’s amazing, I’ve got the same combination on my luggage!”  Fast forward a few decades and what do you suppose the most common password was in 2014?  The good news is that “12345″ was not number one.  It was number three.  The top honor goes to “123456″.  The word “password” came in at number two— a sad state of affairs.

 A large part of the problem with password security is that people don’t realize how easy it is to break into systems with simple passwords.  A lifetime ago I worked for a company as an engineering intern. One day my boss asked me if I could check the security on the accounting systems.  After about ten minutes of cold calls pretending to be from IT, I had a user’s password.  A day later I had a list of over four hundred user passwords from a file I cracked.  Since people often reuse passwords, it gave me access to more than just their office terminals.

Think about your own accounts. How many of them use your email address as the account name, and have the same password you use everywhere? If someone knew your favorite password and your email, could they access your bank account information?  What about your Amazon account?  How many items could someone “One Click” with your stored credit cards before you would notice?

 “Okay, Larry, you’ve made me nervous about my system security, but what do I do?”  

Well, to start with don’t use passwords that have family names or easy to find information like your birthday and or pets.  Misterbarky2 is not a secure password, even with the capital letter and a number.  Mix things up:  Throw in special symbols at the beginning or end, or replace normal letters with numbers.  Take the word “password” for example.  I could use “@“ for the letter a, zero for the letter o, tack some special characters and numbers on to end up with “$p@ssw0rd1”.  That’s a lot harder to guess.

Having a different password for each site you go to is best.  If one site gets compromised, you don’t want that password to work if someone tries it on other sites (and I guarantee you, they will try). Now, one problem with all of this is soon you’re going to end up with many, many passwords.  Almost all of us have a coworker or family member who’s computer monitor looks like a sunflower with all of the sticky notes around it—not exactly the hardest system to crack, when all it takes is a sideways glance or a quick phone photo to have access to them all.

Since I’m cheap thrifty I use a free piece of software called Keepass and store the file using a service like Dropbox.  By doing that I automatically back up my passwords and get the added bonus of being able to get to my passwords from my phone or tablet.  If you’re the spendy type another product is 1Password.  This is commercial product that also acts as a password storage system that keeps everything encrypted. PC Magazine has reviews of both paid and free password managers.  Another bonus to most of these password managers is they will generate very strong passwords for you as needed.

 To summarize, quit using “password” for your password and browse safely!

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