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The Password Polka


By: Dustin Derhousoff

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All of us who live in this interconnected world are familiar with the password polka. We have files or black books filled with the myriad passwords required for our activities from banking to fulfilling our pets’ medications. We attempt to log into sites which have inevitably required a password change two weeks ago. We try to change our passwords per the requirements of our benevolent policy overlords only to discover that we have already used that password, or we are required to use the special characters !@#&@ and one UPPERCASE.

!@$& is right.

One of the biggest frustrations we experience as both consumers and IT professionals has to do with this !@$&-ing dance. In fact, according to the Gartner Group, password resets consume 30% of all IT call volume. And at an estimated 25$ per call (Gartner estimates this amount to be higher at $70 per call) with an average of 1.75 calls per month per person (META Group), this places the cost to a company of 50 employees for password resets alone to nearly $8,000!

And this is where the frustration for the benevolent policy overlords begins. An aggressive password reset policy will undoubtedly increase this number, but $8,000 is small price to pay for the risk mitigation that comes with strong password rules. In fact the risk of exposure, data loss or other more nefarious problems is more or less limitless.

Using this logic, we as IT administrators should increase the strength of our password policies and consider the cost on the support end just the cost of doing business. I have personally run into sys admins who require insanely complex passwords that reset on very short schedules. These security minded individuals believe that the cost of a breach is so severe that end user frustration and support costs are not worthy of consideration.

–And, they would be right…If it weren’t for a couple of big problems.

The first that we incorrectly assess password strength based on our own fleshy weaknesses. Consider the following “complex” password: 1Dr@g0n!

  • Has upper and lower case characters
  • 8+ characters long
  • Contains two of the following: !@#$%^&*()
  • Contains two letters
  • Contains two numbers (that 0 is a zero)

This passes some of the most complex rule systems out there, but could be cracked by a bot running on a low-grade PC in about 3 days…more sophisticated attacks would demolish this password.

This problem is summed up beautifully by the folks at xkcd.com (a wonderfully nerdy web comic).

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The other problem with using what we consider to be complex password policies is, as the comic so elegantly shows: we forget them. And when we forget them, we put them in our little black book, save them in a password file…with a password, probably, or simply write them down on a sticky and put it under our keyboard or on our monitor.

The last offense is obviously an unacceptable breach of password protection, but the sys admin would have no one to blame but herself. She created a password policy that broke the end-user thus leaving a huge hole in their security.

How do we get around this as both consumers and IT professionals? Well, here are a few suggestions:

  • Password Managers – These programs can greatly reduce issues by keeping track of many passwords and providing access via one master password. This solution is really tailored for the problems associated with having too many passwords to remember and keeps people from using 1Dr@g0n! for everything. They also can create random passwords of incredible strength for many applications. PW Managers are typically protected by a master password, which has its own weaknesses, and these programs do have a cost associated with deployment, especially in large organizations, but the offset can easily be seen in reduced IT interventions. This is not really an effective tool for domain passwords or physical entry codes.
  • Biometric/Card/FOB Authentication – This class of authentication relies on something you are or something you have instead of something you know, so gets around the issues involving memory…what was I talking about? Oh right…These solutions do require specialized hardware and have a high cost, but are excellent for primary points of entry such as terminal logins and physical entry points. Cost used to place this type of security in the hands of only those with huge budgets, but that is changing very rapidly.
  • Realistic password rules – Create password policies that allow for passwords such as thebelltollsforthee123 (137 Quadrillion Years to crack that one, by the way). This is primarily a length consideration.
  • Education – This is the most important part of any IT policy (although its value extends to all fields). An educated end user is significantly less likely to write their password down and stick it to their monitor, or create a password that they will never remember. In addition, an educated end user and educated policy makers can combat both robo-hack security issues and the more pervasive and effective ‘social engineering.’ (This is the biggest danger to networks small and large…but that is a conversation for another day.)

There are many other authentication solutions to fit many applications, but they don’t all belong in the conversation about our some-time friend the password, so please forgive me if I have left your favorites out of the list. I hope this helps all of you dancing the password polka!

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