Goldstuck on Gadgets

Come over to the dark side of passwords

January 20th, 2016
Passwords have always been a weak link in online financial security and privacy, and having them inspired by Star Wars makes matters worse, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, offering some tips for safer log-ins.
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Anyone who uses the password “123456” or “password” for an online service is asking to be hacked. Some think they’re being clever and choose a word inspired by a new movie or craze, and find they are equally at risk.

The latest list of the world’s worst passwords highlights stupidity, carelessness, and laziness – but also gives us a few clues on how to protect ourselves from hackers trying to guess their way past our defences.

The top six most commonly used passwords of 2015, according to SplashData, a global provider of password management applications, have not even changed from the year before – so complacent are the people using them. The order of their popularity has shifted, but that barely moves the needle of the stupidity index at work.

The top six are:
1 123456
2 password
3 12345678
4 qwerty
5 12345
6 123456789

 

SplashData’s fifth annual report is compiled from more than 2-million leaked passwords. The company points out that, while new and longer passwords have entered the top 25 list, they are often so simple, their extra length is “virtually worthless as a security measure”.

The report highlights the following newcomers to the top 25 list to illustrate this point:

  • 1234567890
  • 1qaz2wsx (the first two columns of main keys on a standard keyboard)
  • qwertyuiop (top row of keys on a standard keyboard)

Almost hilariously, “football” and “baseball” make the top 10. Who would have guessed? Equally predictably, three passwords inspired by Star Wars quickly entered the top 25 in the wake of release of The Force Awakens.  The uninspired choices were “starwars,” “solo,” and “princess”, joining  “welcome”, “login” and “passw0rd.”

We may joke, of course, but even experienced users often make a poor choice of password, such as the name of a close relative or pet. Innocent posts on their Facebook profiles or Twitter feeds could well expose the options for a hacker to try.

To make matters worse, according to research conducted by security software leaders Kaspersky Lab, a high proportion of Internet users share their passwords with somebody or leave them visible for others to see. In South Africa, no less than 42% of Internet users admitted to doing so. One in ten said they shared passwords with friends and 8% said they shared them with colleagues.

“Once shared, it is very difficult to know exactly where your password will end up,” warns David Emm, principal security researcher at Kaspersky Lab. “Our research shows that there is a real disconnect between the understanding of why we need strong passwords and the action people take to keep them safe.”

The survey showed that only half (51%) of SA consumers thought email required a strong password, and a third (32%) for social media sites. For online shopping, the proportion dropped to 24%.

The underlying threat these figures reveal is the fact that an email address is usually the gateway to all other services a person uses online. Hack into someone’s e-mail, and you have the keys to their financial and social kingdom.

“At worst, entire identities could be put at risk,” says Emm. “Even the most complex password is weak if it’s visible to others.”

How to choose a strong password

Choosing a strong password is as much about common sense as it is about being savvy in the online streets. The litmus test for a weak password is simple: will someone else be able to guess my password randomly?

The test for a reasonably strong password is equally simple: will someone be able to hit on my password by trying variations on names that mean something to me?

The challenge, then, is to come up with something that the user will remember, but no one would be able to guess. That means it should be personal, but in such a way that only the user will know it.

The Kaspersky blog suggests what it calls a “Story Algorithm”. It goes like this:

  • Think of a phrase, song lyrics, quotes from a movie or simply a lullaby from when you were a child.
  • Take the first letter from the first five words.
  • Between every letter add a special character.

“At this stage you will have created a static string, and from now on you will base all of your unique passwords off of this string. Since it’s a static string, it won’t be unique for every site that you need a password for. What you need to do now is use the power of association.

“When you think of Facebook, Twitter, eBay, dating sites, online gaming sites or any other site, write down the first word that you associate with that site that you need a password for. For example, if you are creating a password for Facebook, you might associate Facebook with the blue color in the logo: so, then you can simply append the word ‘blue’, maybe in all caps, at the end of your static string.”

That may be too complex for most people. A quicker route is to take the names of two distant relatives and add a number or two between the names. This number or the names or their order can be changed for each site used. A master list can be kept, listing only the initials used for each password. The master list itself should then be password protected in case someone finds a way to access it on the computer where it’s stored. That password should be the most complex of all.

Ultimately, the user’s own paranoia levels and the sensitivitity of the information being protected will dictate the complexity of password choice. At the absoulte bare minimum, though, avoid a password that resembles anything on the SpashData list as if your life depends on it. That may well turn out to be the literal truth.

SplashData’s “Worst Passwords of 2015”

Rank Password Change from 2014
1 123456 Unchanged
2 password Unchanged
3 12345678 Up 1
4 qwerty Up 1
5 12345 Down 2
6 123456789 Unchanged
7 football Up 3
8 1234 Down 1
9 1234567 Up 2
10 baseball Down 2
11 welcome New
12 1234567890 New
13 abc123 Up 1
14 111111 Up 1
15 1qaz2wsx New
16 dragon Down 7
17 master Up 2
18 monkey Down 6
19 letmein Down 6
20 login New
21 princess New
22 qwertyuiop New
23 solo New
24 passw0rd New
25 starwars New

Test your password

The Kaspersky Secure Password Check guides users in creating a secure password. Type in the word, string or phrase, and it immediately provides feedback on how long it will take an average computer to crack the password by brute computing force. Try it at https://blog.kaspersky.com/password-check/

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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