Password Security

Protecting your passwords

While technology opens new doors for convenience and communication, it also allows for breakthroughs in hacking methods. Many people don’t take password security seriously, and many are paying the price by unwittingly revealing their private information and allowing hackers to access proprietary systems.

Hackers (or “crackers” as they are also commonly referred to) target personal passwords to gain access to restricted information. They use special password-cracking software to guess passwords. Many of these programmes are freely available over the internet, and can be run remotely.

Am I vulnerable?

Home PC users enter passwords when accessing websites to perform personal business transactions, such as banking and online shopping. Without proper password management, they make themselves easy targets for hackers.

Remote users and those on home networks not only allow hackers to intercept their passwords, they allow access to entire networks of private business information. Everyone must take responsibility for creating strong passwords and safeguarding them. A good password is private (known only by you), easily remembered, not easily guessed, and is not written down.

When a hacker wants to gain access to a network resource, the easiest way is to figure out the password of a valid user. Hackers use specialised software to attempt to discover passwords. The most common type of attack is called a “dictionary attack”. A dictionary attack uses a large list of words and tries each of them until an accepted password is found. They start with obvious or weak choices such as names and nouns, and then move on to word lists, combinations, and hybrids of the words.

Other ways hackers obtain passwords are to install software on a computer to record its keystrokes, or simply by watching as a user enters their password. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of who has physical access to a PC, and how openly users log onto the computer. It’s also imperative to maintain a secure computing system by installing and upgrading anti-virus and firewall software in case a password breech occurs. McAfee® products offer comprehensive protection.

How do I protect myself?

The more difficult a password is to guess, the more secure it will be. For example, if you choose a one-character password that can be any upper- or lower-case letter or a digit, there are 62 possibilities. A cracking programme can guess it very quickly. Using the same possible characters, an eight-digit password has about 218 trillion possibilities. Unfortunately, people generally put the odds in the programme’s favour by choosing easily guessed combinations. Therefore, security specialists recommend these guidelines:

  • Use as many characters as possible (minimum six)
     
  • Include uppercase and lowercase letters
     
  • Include digits and punctuation marks
     
  • Don’t use personal information, such as names or birthdays
     
  • Don’t use words found in a dictionary
     

Techniques for strong passwords:

  • Use a mixture of formats; for example: “GR8way2B”
     
  • Use several small words with punctuation marks: “betty,boop$car%”
     
  • Put punctuation in the middle of a word: “Roos%velt&”
     
  • Use an unusual way of contracting a word: “ppcrnbll”
  • Use the first letter of each word in a phrase, with a random number: “hard to crack this password” = “htc5tp”

Never share your password, remember to change it regularly, and never use the same password twice. Do not write down passwords in an obvious place. By securing your systems, creating strong passwords, and following safeguarding techniques, you, your computer, and your identity can be much more secure.

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