'123456' may be an adequate password to protect nothing

Posted by   Virus Bulletin on   Nov 7, 2013

Are we giving users the right kind of advice when it comes to password security?

A recent data-breach at Adobe has shown once again that a lot of users choose the most trivial of passwords to protect their online accounts. But is this really what we should be focusing on?

As data-breaches go, the recent one at Adobe, which affected tens of millions of users of the company's website, was pretty big. And as basic blunders when storing personal data go, the ones made by Adobe were, well, pretty basic.

One of the blunders made was the use of the same encryption key for all passwords, while another was to include the password hint in plain text. Given the now wide availability of the file containing all these (encrypted rather than hashed) passwords, it is not too difficult to make a list of the most commonly used passwords.

Guess what? A whopping 1.9 million people 'protected' their account with the password '123456', while many others used equally trivial passwords like 'password', 'adobe123' and '111111'. This has led to the usual comments from security experts: 'Oh my, aren't people bad at choosing strong passwords?', and 'Gosh, isn't it good that there are people like us to tell them how to do it right?'.

But is this really the biggest problem?

Sure, none of the mentioned passwords provides any kind of protection. This, of course, is only a problem if there is something to protect in the first place - and no doubt many of the insecure passwords were chosen for one-off accounts, to download a file that required a login, or to post a single question on one of Adobe's user forums.

Of course, making an informed decision on the amount of harm an attacker can do once they get hold of the account is hard. Which is why I would recommend anyone to use a truly random 16-character password, even for the most trivial of accounts.

But there is something far more important than that: make sure you don't use the same password you use elsewhere, and definitely not that used to protect any important account. Using the same very strong password on your throwaway Adobe account as you use on your PayPal account is far, far worse than using something as trivial as '123456'. And that isn't always made clear when the use of weak passwords is criticised.

Combining strength and variety in passwords is extremely difficult, which is why many - myself included - prefer to use a password manager. It's a pretty neat solution, but one that does introduce a single point of failure that bad actors will no doubt try to exploit, especially once password managers become widely used.

Authentication is one of the hardest problems of the Internet and one that at best is only partially solved. Users do play an important role - and many can certainly do more to prevent abuse. But when we warn them against doing something bad, we should make sure they don't do something far, far worse instead.

Posted on 07 November 2013 by Martijn Grooten

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