Within 24 hours, I have had some interesting interactions with strong, or sometimes not-so-strong, passwords. I figured now was a good time to go over some of the pitfalls you might encounter when trying to implement a new password policy for your customers or employees.
We first need to discuss the purpose of a password policy. The goal is greater security and also some increase to awareness of privacy and security by the systems users. Most password policies enforce rules about what a password must be, generally including the following rules:
- At least 1 uppercase letter
- At least 1 lowercase letter
- A number
- A non-letter symbol, such as $, #, or !
- Be at least 6 characters long
- The password must be changed every X months
These rules are considered the standard for passwords.
Now there are some problems that may arise from enforcing such a policy. My wife and I were watching the show Scorpion on TV. This show about a group of geniuses that solve complex problems had in this episode been picked by the US government to help fix an issue with a secure server. They get to a secure location and the FBI agent they are with states that the room they are going into is protected by a 50 character password. 50 characters is absurd for a few reasons, but it gets worse because this agent then takes out a sticky note and enters the code. Amazing how the most basic product by 3M can destroy the security of what was supposedly a top secret and secure government site.
If you enforce rules that are too strict, your employees may need to resort to methods of remembering their passwords that circumvent the privacy and security of your system. If your employees cannot remember their password that they have to change every 90 days, they will resort to writing down, or just switching back and forth between a series of different passwords. You do not want to encumber your workforce with this policy. Additionally, if a manager tries to work around this policy in this way, it is possible for subordinates to access files or systems they should not because the manager’s password is available via a note or similar method to them.
Strong passwords are not bad though. The important thing is to ensure that you have a balance between security and ease of use. Having too weak of passwords is far worse. For example, I was at a local hobby store I frequent when an employee who was not the manager authorized a transaction that would require manager approval. How? Well the manager’s password was “birds” and that is an awful and incredibly weak password. She had also written it down and left it on the monitor, again allowing 3M’s incredible adhesive technology to thwart their security.
How can you balance out a policy and prevent weakness in passwords? To start, think of common pitfalls, such as using a single word as a password. Ban the use of weak codes such as “123456,” “Password,” or a user’s birthday. If a person wants to use a basic word, like “birds” suggest a better alternative, like “B1rd$.” While not the best password, it is much stronger. Most importantly, remember that a privacy professional is not meant to interrupt the flow of business or encumber the staff of a business. You are there to help facilitate business and ensure privacy and security for both customers and employees.