You use passwords every day to access things like your phone, your email, and social networking. But are you really keeping yourself safe? Fortunately, there are simple ways to make passwords both hard-to-guess and easy-to-remember.
Most password-cracking doesn't happen the way it's portrayed in movies, where Our Hero (or The Villain) sits at a keyboard, tries a phrase or two, rubs his chin, then spies a childhood photo on the desk. Aha! Type the magic word and presto, security circumvented. In the real world, the vast majority of password cracking is automated, with computers literally throwing every word in the dictionary (and then some) at a system in hopes of stumbling across the correct term.
So, it turns out a key to a strong password isn't its obscurity but its complexity — things that make it less likely to be guessed by an automated password cracker. However, making a good complex password means knowing a bit about how passwords get broken.
In very general terms, password crackers typically have two approaches. One is to literally try a pre-compiled list of possible passwords. These usually start from very common passwords (like password or qwerty) and work their way down to less common terms, and eventually use a list of words compiled from an online dictionary and other sources. Another password-cracking approach is to try valid sequences of letters, numbers, and symbols, regardless of their meaning.
Making Complex Passwords
- Use long passwords. If an eight-character password can have 1.6 quadrillion possible combinations, imagine how many a 16-character password can have? Using longer passwords is the easiest way to make passwords more complex and more secure.
- Use combined words. Remember long passwords with a series of three to five simple, unrelated terms.
- Use phrases or lyrics. Another way of making long passwords is to use parts of phrases or lyrics.
- Use mnemonics. Try using the first character of every word in a sentence, phrase or lyric.
Other Password Tips
- Use separate passwords for separate services. Don't use your social-networking password for online banking. If a password is compromised on one service, the others should be safe.
- Change your passwords. By changing your password regularly, you ensure that even if someone breaks in, their window of opportunity to exploit you is limited. The frequency with which you should change passwords varies with how you use online services.
- No password is safe. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about passwords is that any password can be cracked: It's just a question of how much time and effort someone is willing to put into it. The tips here will help reduce the odds your passwords will be rooted out by random attackers and even friends and family, but no password is completely secure.
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