Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Password Insanity

I’m going to pick on password security requirements for a bit. I was just forced to change my password for a certain website which requires their users to change it every 90 days. This is a common requirement for a lot of places, but also, potentially a stupid one. Let’s look at this for a minute.

Being a programmer, I consider myself an expert user. I think about security all the time. I have several different randomly generated passwords containing numbers, letters, and in some cases symbols. I have to have a variety because of the various ridiculous password requirements of different websites and services. We’ll get to that in a minute. So I use one of these passwords for a website I signup at. Later I login to discover that I’m now being forced to change my password. It’s not long before I run out of my more secure passwords. At this point I’m frustrated and I resort to far less secure password practices.

I could generate a new password or make one up each time I have to change it and write it down or store it in a password vault. If I weren’t an expert user, I’m more likely to write it down, which is far less secure. Not only is this an inconvenience because I have to lookup my password every time I login if it’s not a place I login to often, but it also means that my password is physically stored somewhere. This will always be less secure than if the only place it was stored was in my head.

What I usually end up doing is using far less secure passwords where I can just increment a number or reverse the password a bit. For example, on one such site I used abcd1234 then when it expired I reversed it to 1234abcd. I also stored it in a file so I didn’t have to go through the whole process of resetting the password when I inevitably forget what I used for that site. I used to have a nice quality password there that was only stored in my head.

Now let’s take a practical look at password restrictions. On this same website they had a list of requirements when setting a password. A lot of administrators implement strict requirements feeling like this leads to better security. Let’s have a look at some of these requirements and what they say to a hacker:

  • Password must be EXACTLY 8 characters

    Really? Ok, so now if I’m a hacker and I’m configuring my password cracking software to brute force a user’s password I now know that I don’t have to bother trying anything less than OR greater than 8 characters. This narrows it down to a VERY small number of passwords that a computer has to try to guess the right password.

  • Password must contain at least 1 letter and 1 number

    Ok, so now I know that I can probably find a large chunk of user’s passwords with a simple dictionary attack with mutations. This means that the program will try adding mutations such as adding common numbers to the beginning and end of a password and adjusting the casing of letters. I don’t need to bother with a plain dictionary attack. And believe it or not, having a number in your password doesn’t magically make it secure, and you can have a very secure password with only letters.

  • Password must NOT contain any symbols

    This is getting ridiculous. The number of passwords that I have to try to successfully guess a user’s password has just been reduced exponentially. If the software/website literally can’t support symbols then it was terribly written by terrible programmers. There is no excuse for this.

These are just a few of the actual requirements that I see still in place around the web. And guess what? If I can get an MD5/SHA-whatever hash of your password, then I can just run it against rainbow tables that are widely available for download and have any user’s password in seconds. Unless, of course, the hash is salted - but we won’t get into that now.

So, you may think you’re doing your user’s a favor by enforcing strict password requirements, but you’re not. I would simply require a minimum of 8 characters and leave it at that. Want to know how to generate an very secure, yet easy to remember password? Check it out! http://xkcd.com/936/

Also, as a side note, if you ever find a website that emails you your password in plain text, I would panic! This means they have it in plain text in their database as well. Never use a password you care about with one of these websites. And make sure you send them many angry emails!

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