In case there are some blank entries in your laundry list of New Year’s resolutions, we have a few tips for a bit of cybersecurity ‘soul searching’. Here’s the first batch, looking at how you can fix your good ol’ passwords.
Many of us entered 2019 with a boatload of New Year’s resolutions. Doing more exercise, fixing unhealthy eating habits and saving more money are all highly respectable goals in their own right, but could it be that they don’t go far enough in an era with countless apps and sites that scream for letting them help you reach your personal goals, which apparently also implies – you guessed it – reach your New Year’s resolutions?
Now, you may want to add a few more weighty and yet fairly effortless habits on top of those well-worn choices. Here are a handful of tips for ‘exercises’ that will do good for your cyber-fitness.
I won’t pass up on stubborn passwords
Passwords have a bad rap, and deservedly so: they suffer from weaknesses, both in terms of security and convenience, that make them a less-than-ideal method of authentication. However, much of what the Internet offers is dependent on your signing up for this or that online service, and the available form of authentication almost universally happens to be the username/password combination.
As the keys that open online accounts (not to speak of many devices), passwords are often rightly thought of as the first – alas, often the only – line of defense that protects your virtual and real assets from intruders. However, passwords don’t offer much in the way of protection unless, in the first place, they’re strong and unique to each device and account.
But what constitutes a strong password? A passphrase! Done right, typical passphrases are generally both more secure and more user-friendly than typical passwords. The longer the passphrase and the more words it packs the better, with seven words providing for a solid start. With each extra character (not to mention words), the number of possible combinations rises exponentially, which makes simple brute-force password-cracking attacks far less likely to succeed, if not well-nigh impossible (assuming, of course, that the service in question does not impose limitations on password input length – something that is, sadly, still far too common).
I’ll have no sympathy for the passphrase-cracker
Another caveat is that it’s better to refrain from phrases that have made it into the everyday lexicon. Entire books, famous quotes, or lyrics – sing, ‘Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name’ as a bit of an extreme example that is not to be taken literally – already tend to be part of the fodder of password-cracking tools. The individual words should be in random order and, ideally, sprinkled with special characters and character substitution, all the while retaining a hidden meaning and memorability to its creator. For practical guidance about creating your passphrases, you may want to refer to this short video tutorial or to this article.
Then, of course, there is the need for each passphrase to be distinct for each account, so that a leak of one of your passphrases doesn’t reverberate through your other and possibly more valuable accounts. Alas, the dangerous practice of password recycling is ubiquitous, and attackers can exploit it hands-down with an automated technique known as ‘credential stuffing’.
It’s quite likely that you use too many online accounts to remember a distinct passphrase for each of them. In which case, it’s worth considering a reputable password vault/manager that encrypts your password storage and takes away much of the pain that password management involves. Of course, such a tool can also generate randomized and complex passwords and passphrases for you.
While then you should need to remember only one master password that, ultimately, opens all your online accounts, the pressure will be on the sturdiness and uniqueness of this one key to your digital kingdom – so it’s back to the suggestions above.
I won’t skip the second step
Another trouble with passwords/passphrases may arise when they are not only the first, but actually the only line of defense for your account security. When that barrier crumbles – commonly through a phishing attack or by attackers somehow working out your login details – an extra authentication factor that does not rely on ‘something you know’ may very well foil your adversaries.
Two-factor authentication (2FA), or multi-factor authentication (MFA), is an excellent way of boosting the security of your accounts, especially when coupled with hardware keys or dedicated apps, and less so with SMS-borne 2FA. Although many online services provide 2FA options, few require its use. However, the adoption of 2FA has been on the rise and it’s never been easier to jump on the practice. Regardless if its implementation, signing up for 2FA wherever you can is well worth the little extra effort, as it can help in various scenarios, including when you never fell prey to a cyberattack compromising any of your passwords.
In fact, it’s quite probable that some of your authentication details will be, or have already been, stolen and posted online or made available for sale on underground marketplaces. The source of these password leaks include the many security breaches that have blighted online services, retailers, hotel chains and the like. Additionally, the targeted entity may have protected the users’ passwords with weak hashing and salting functions, or even stored the passwords in plain text. Worse still, the service provider, let alone you, may not know until quite a while later that hackers pilfered the often poorly secured data, or purchased them on the dark web, so you had no shot at taking any ad-hoc defensive measures. Again, this is also where that extra authentication factor will usually thwart any account-takeover attempts.
In fact, go ahead and see for yourself on Have I Been Pwned? whether any of your online accounts may have been part of a known breach. Aside from the almost 5.7 billion compromised accounts that the site indexes, it also has a cache of more than half a billion publicly leaked or stolen passwords in clear text that have been revealed in past breaches, so you can check yours against the database, too.
I’ll use fewer passwords
Surely a mistake, right? Well, it may sound counterintuitive, but fixing your passwords may also imply needing fewer of them in the first place. More precisely, it means cutting ties with the services you no longer use, so that you needn’t ‘look after’ your accounts with them. We all have set up accounts that we no longer use. Indeed, we may have racked up quite a few of them over the years, including some we barely remember. However, the adage ‘the internet never forgets’ fits here too, and forgetting is something you shouldn’t do, either.
The trouble with unused accounts is that each of them – even if only a vestige of your much younger self – is a potential source of danger. The service may suffer a breach exposing your password or may be sold to new owners whose intentions might not exactly be honest. Or, if miscreants take over your account, they might be able to use it to break into one of your highly valued accounts, be it by gathering private information about you, or through your failing to use a unique password for each account. Or they can just as well use it to spew out spam.
But what doesn’t exist can’t be taken over, can it? Feel no remorse: just dispatch those accounts to a better place and never look back. There are even services that promise to scale back your online footprint in bulk; that is, without you having to recall or comb through and then manually shut down each inactive account. Using a service just to help kill online accounts may not be for everybody, however, as essentially you need to take the developers of such tools at their word.
While you’re cutting the clutter, consider severing ties also with third-party apps and services that are associated with your accounts on social and other major sites, especially the apps that you no longer use. These apps, too, can be misused as other entry points for illicit data collection or even worse. To pull the plug on their access to your account and data, navigate to the privacy and/or security settings of your online service(s) of choice; from there, it usually takes only a click or two.
Staying safe online isn’t going to become any easier this year, and we’ll be back in a few days with more tips for beefing up your personal security. Next time, we’ll focus mainly on a couple of easy ways to boost the security of your wireless network.