The MacMost.com Guide to Online Password Security
When you create an account at a Web site you are usually asked to provide a password. What do you choose? Your child’s name? Your dog’s name? Your favorite flavor of ice cream?
Choosing a weak password opens your account up to being invaded. Someone could mess around with your Facebook status and spam your friends. Someone could order gifts for themselves on your Amazon account. Someone could drain your bank account or credit card. Or, worse, they could steal your identity and cause problems that could last for years. You can most likely avoid this by following some very basic security practices. These are things anyone can do. You don’t have to be a computer expert and you don’t have to buy any special hardware or software.
How the Bad Guys Get In
The first step you need to take is to make sure you use strong passwords. Is your password to any Web site “password”? Or how about “123456″ or “qwerty?” These are the three most common passwords. And those that will do you harm will try to get into your online accounts using them.
But they won’t stop there. They will try the top 100 passwords. Then the top 1,000. In fact malicious hackers are taking email addresses and passwords and randomly trying to log into accounts at the most popular Web sites on an ongoing basis.
And you know what? They get in. Every day they harvest valid user names and passwords to big Web sites because someone used a common password.
They don’t even use their own computers for this. Computers all over the world are infected with viruses that turn that computer into a member of a “botnet.” In other words, a malicious hacker just sends a message to thousands of compromised computers and that botnet army then tries user names and passwords all night long, returning any results.
So what is a bad, or “weak” password? Well, the list of the top few thousand common passwords is a start. But then the entire dictionary is next. Any real word, one that can be found in the dictionary, can be selected at random by a bot and tried as a password.
Next, include names, places, and book, movie and song titles. Anything that can be found written down in a book or article of some sort is probably on a list of possible passwords that you might have.
But that’s not all. What about dates? Is your password your birthday? Your spouse’s birthday? Your child’s birthday? Birthdays follow only a few common formats and come from a set of numbers that only includes 12 months, 31 days and 80 or so years. That’s less than the number of words in the dictionary!
What if you are clever and use a word, but disguise it. Maybe a zero instead of the letter o, or a 3 instead of an e. Clever, yes, but that could still be guessed by a bot.
In fact if you use any of these kinds of passwords, given enough time, your account will be compromised.
So here is what not to pick as a password:
- Dictionary words
- Places and names
- Keyboard sequences
- Dates in any format
- Words disguised with letter substitutions
So what should a good password look like? Here are some rules to follow:
- Use letters and numbers
- Use upper and lower case letters
- It should be at least 8 characters long
- It should be completely random
While it would be so cool to have your password stand for something or have a deep meaning, resist that temptation. Just don’t do it.
Instead, use a program to randomly create a password for you. One method of doing it on the Mac is to use the Password Assistant. Go to System Preferences and then Accounts. Click the Change Password button. Then, next to the “New password” field, click on the key button. This brings up the password assistant. Set it to “Letters and Numbers” with a length of 8 or 9. You will get a list of suggestions in a pull-down menu. You can choose one and copy it to your clipboard. Then close the password assistant and cancel the Change Password action, unless you really want to change your Mac account password.
Save Your Password in a Secure Place
You may have heard someone say that you should never write a password down. This does create a security hole, sure. But only if someone is specifically targeting you — in which case this is not the guide you should be reading. You need professional help.
You should write down your password and store it somewhere. How far you go to “hide” it is up to you. But the important thing is that online malicious hackers cannot spring out of your monitor and start searching your desk. They can, potentially, get access to your computer files. So if you store your passwords in a file on your computer, make sure it is an encrypted and protected file. I’ll mention some ways to do this later on.
One Step Further – Different Passwords
I recommend this next step to everyone, but I realize it is asking a lot. You should have a different strong password for every online account.
Now you may have hundreds of accounts. Having hundreds of passwords means you cannot possibly remember them all. But with the help of your browser, the Mac Keychain, and third-party programs I’ll talk about later, you don’t have to.
The problem with having the same password for many accounts is that all of those accounts is only as secure as the weakest Web site. If one of those sites doesn’t secure their passwords, or has a rogue employee, or does something stupid, then a list of email addresses and passwords could be compromised. It could be a stupid game site that you could care less about. But what if your email and password are the same as your Amazon account? I’ll bet a lot of them are.
So try to use a unique password for each Web site.
One Step Even Further – Change Your Passwords
You should also change your password often. Now this is where you can prioritize. Amazon, Facebook and your email account should get changed often. A password for a fun little game site or blog might not be as important. There may be no personal information there, and if you lose your account, you can just get another one.
The reason you want to change your password often is that a compromised user name and password may not be used right away. It could be days or months before your stolen password is used for something bad. So if you change your password, say, every month, you may avoid trouble.
The Bare Minimum
I really hesitate to talk much about the last two sections. I’m afraid that people are gong to think: “Create strong passwords, have a different one for each site, and change them all the time? That’s too much! Forget it. I’ll stick with using abc123 for everything.”
If you find yourself thinking that, please consider that you give yourself quite a bit of protection just by doing the bare minimum:
Use only strong passwords
Give your most critical sites unique passwords
What are critical sites? The obvious would be your bank accounts, any shopping site where you store your credit card information, your email accounts and any Web hosting accounts. Also include any services that have high-level personal information, such as accounting sites or personal management sites.
The Most Important Account of All
Can you think of which of your online accounts is the most critical? It is your email account. If that is compromised, then everything is compromised.
Consider that when you lose a password to a site you can always press the “I forgot my password” button on that login page. What happens then? You get an email with your password, or a reset code of some sort. So just by reading your email, you can get access to almost any site you are signed up for without your password.
If someone up to no good got access to your email account, they could request all your passwords, get them by looking at your email, and have access to everything.
So it is critical that your email account have a strong password, and a unique one not used for anything else. And you should probably change it often.
How To Remember All These Passwords?
If you are signed up for 100 different site with 100 different passwords, how are you supposed to remember them all?
Fortunately, you don’t have to. Whether you are using Safari or Firefox, your browser will offer to remember passwords for Web sites. When you enter a user name and password on a site, the browser will ask if it is OK for it to remember that password. If you say yes, then you won’t need to remember the password anymore. The browser will fill it in for you.
How can this be secure? If you don’t need to use a password anymore, then can’t anyone get into your accounts?
Well, yes. But they’d have to be sitting at your computer to do it. So it is all a matter of how secure your physical space is. If your Mac is at work, you will want to make sure you set your System Preferences, Security settings appropriately so you require a password to log into your account in the first place.
If your Mac is at home, then consider that if someone breaks into your home your Amazon password may be the least of your worries.
Third-Party Password Programs
You can get even more help in securing your passwords from some inexpensive applications. The program 1Password is built specifically for this. And it is a genius piece of software.
It acts as a secure wallet for all your user names and passwords. You can add passwords and it stores them in an encrypted file on your Mac that you can access only if you have the master password. It also works with Safari and Firefox to assist you when you log into a Web site.
So when you get to a site and it asks for your password, you just press the 1Password button and 1Password will prompt you for your master password and then fill in the Web form.
This way, each and every Web site you visit can have a strong, unique password. In fact, you can easily go beyond 8 or 9 characters and use ridiculously long and strong passwords for every site. The only one you need to remember is your master password.
Plus, changing passwords is easily done, as you can simply go to the Web site’s “change my password” page and 1Password will suggest a new strong password and then record it on the spot in its database.
Backing Up Your Passwords
A program like 1Password also helps in that it stores all your passwords in one place on your computer — and you can back that file up easily. If you use Time Machine, then you have a backup there. But you can even store a copy of the file on a server or backup service. It will be secure because it is encrypted and useless to anyone without the master password.
The beauty of backing up your passwords is that if your computer is stolen or the hard drive simply fails, you can get your passwords back by simply restoring that file.
If you don’t use a program like 1Password, then you should still have a backup of all your important passwords. It could be an encrypted file, or even a printout of the passwords stored in a safe location.
What If I Travel With a MacBook?
Those of us that take our computers out of the house are especially vulnerable to getting our passwords stolen.
If you laptop is swiped, guess what are the most valuable things on it? Your passwords. Someone could just open up your laptop and start reading your email, or logging on to shopping sites you regularly use. Your browser will have those passwords in there, ready to go.
Your first line of defense is to make sure you have turned on “Require Password” under System Preferences, Security. This will at least slow them down. They won’t be able to start using your computer right away.
Another step you can take is to turn on FileVault in the same preferences window. But this is an extreme step. FileVault will encrypt your entire user folder. This means that just the act of using you computer requires your Mac to encrypt and decrypt every piece of data. It is a good measure when security is more important than anything else, but not for the typical user.
What you’ve got to be ready to do at any moment is to change your passwords. If your laptop is stolen, you’ve got to get to your backup list of user names and passwords and start changing them all, starting with your email account. Don’t wait until you get a replacement computer. Find a friend with a computer or seek some professional help to get those password changed right away.
Traveling with a MacBook also brings up the subject of unsecured wifi networks. If you travel, then you probably log on to the Internet through a wifi network at your hotel, the airport, the conference center or even a coffee shop.
How do you know which are secure and which are not? The rule is simple: assume they are all insecure. Even if the establishment itself is beyond reproach, a malicious hacker could be “listening” in on the open wifi network and stealing the passwords of everyone that uses it.
So follow some simple rules when using any wifi network. Anything you see or type is insecure unless you are at a secure Web site with a https address. Look for the “s” and a little padlock symbol at the upper right corner of Safari. Many Web sites will offer both secure and unsecured versions. For instance, you can go to http://gmail.com and https://gmail.com. Always use the https version.
Make sure you are logging into your email account with a secure connection. Knowing if it is or not depends on your ISP. They should give you that information on their Web site — or call them an ask about it.
Using Other Computers
Even more insecure than using a public WiFi network is using a public computer. Any computer that is not yours could have key logging software installed, for instance. So even if you are logging on to your secure Web site with a string password, the keystrokes you type could be recorded and sent along to someone — even the keystrokes of your password.
But even if the computer hasn’t been compromised in this way, IDs and password could simply be stored in the browser. Logging out of your account when you are done and then cleaning the browser’s cookies and cache is good protection, but not perfect. If you absolutely need to use a public computer make sure you change your password after you are done and monitor your accounts closely to make sure they haven’t been compromised.
If you have done everything else and are looking to become even more secure, examine the physical security of your computer. Is it at work, or do you travel with your MacBook? How easy is it for someone else to get 15 seconds on your computer without you knowing?
If someone else can access your computer, even for a very short time, they can get passwords in many ways. Make sure you have a password set for your OS X user account and make sure it logs you out automatically after a very short period of non-use.
Also, make sure that if you have written down your passwords that they are secure and hard to find. If you want to feel like a spy, plant a fake set of passwords that someone will find before they find your real set of passwords. Or, hide your passwords in such a way so you will know if someone has had a look at them.
The Back Door
So you have a strong password. You’re set, right? Nope. Almost every online account has a back door. It is usually called your “secret question.” The problem is, it is not so secret.
Maybe you answered the question “What is your mother’s maiden name.” Or, “What street did you grow up on?” Something like that.
Now it may be impossible for someone to guess that you grew up on “Cedar Road.” But what are the chances that your street is one of the 1000 most popular street names? How about the 10,000 most popular? Secret questions are even more susceptible to dictionary attacks. “What is your pet’s name?” Bet it is in the list of the top 1000.
The best way to seal your back door is to see if the online account allows you to choose your own question. Then simply “What is my backup password” or something similar and choose another strong password. Write it down or record it in a password program.
If you can’t choose your own question, then lie. Give your mother’s maiden name as a string of random letters.
Passwords Never Die
One final thing. Make sure your passwords are stored in a place where a trusted loved one will be able to get them if you should pass on. Think about it for a second. If you die, what will happen to the money in your bank accounts, or your Facebook profile, or your Amazon shopping account?
Online services are notoriously bad at handling death. If your survivors want to shut down your Facebook profile, or access your email list to contact friends, they may find themselves having to jump through frustrating hoops to do so. But if they just had a list of passwords that they could find in the bottom of a safe or bank box, it would be so much easier. This is where something like 1Password really comes in handy. All they would need is that master password and they could get up-to-date password for all of your accounts.
It may seem silly to think of this now, but if there are 250 million people on Facebook, and the average age of death is 70, then about 10,000 Facebook users die every day. The actual number is probably much lower because most Facebook users would be much younger than 70. But you get the idea. That’s a lot of abandoned accounts every day that some poor spouse, parent, child or relative has to figure out how to shut down.
Leave a comment below with more ideas about how you can keep your passwords secure. This is by no means a definitive list. There are probably other methods to create strong passwords and keep them safe — maybe even ideas that can make the whole thing easier. Share your thoughts with the community.