Why so many bad passwords? Because the rules allow them.

A recent study by security company Trustwave found that the most common computer passwords are still variations on the word “password.”

That news won’t make anyone spit out their morning coffee; the prevalence of bad passwords is an established fact of life. But the report does shed light on why bad passwords are so common and offers suggestions for reducing the problem.

Trustwave’s 2012 Global Security Report, a comprehensive look at the security landscape, includes a section on passwords that delves into weaknesses in user behavior, administrative policy and the technologies used to manage passwords.

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The company’s SpiderLabs studied 2.5 million passwords used at organizations and found that about 5 percent of them used a variation on “password,” such as “Password1,” “Password2,” “Passw0rd,” “Password123," and plain old “password.” Also popular were variations on “welcome,” such as “WeIcome,” “Welcome1,” and so on. And the always-reliable “123456” made an appearance, too.

Why? One reason, the report states, is that password management systems allow it, especially when set to their lowest level of complexity.

For the study, the lab team focused on Windows Active Directory, since just about every organization uses it to store user accounts. The default settings for AD require that passwords be at least six characters long and contain characters from at least three of five categories: uppercase, lowercase, numerals between 0 and 9, special characters, and Unicode characters. It also requires that the password not contain three or more characters from the user’s name.

Users will chose the path of least resistance, particularly if they have to remember a password, so they’ll usually choose the easier three categories: upper- and lowercase letters and throw in a number. Hence, a lot of “Password1” — which, the report points out, meets the same complexity requirements as “X$nc*(24,” or any other combination that makes use of all five categories.

And even though most organizations require that passwords be changed every so often, Windows AD’s default settings don’t forbid changing to similar passwords, so a user can change “Password1” to “Password2” to “Password3,” the report states.

When people aren’t falling back on “password” and “welcome” variations, they still tend to build their passwords around common, correctly spelled English words. Popular sources of passwords included months of the year, U.S. states, the seasons and names found in the list of the top 100 babies’ names for 2011.

And they don’t mix it up much with special characters. Of Trustwave’s list of the 25 most common passwords, only one — “[email protected]”— contained a special character. Such passwords are not only vulnerable to a dictionary attack but fairly easy to guess outright.

But there are things administrators and users can do to make them better, Trustwave says.

“The solution to password security starts with eliminating weaker, older and insecure technologies,” the report states. “In the case of Windows AD, the use of LAN Manager for password storage simply needs to go.”

LAN Manager was originally used as a hashing algorithm for pre-Windows NT systems, and even though Microsoft disabled it starting with the Vista and Server 2008 operating systems, it still is common with XP and Server 2003 systems.

For Windows systems, Trustwave recommends using NT Hash-based storage, which allows for a larger, 128-bit key space and Unicode. The report also recommends using third-party cryptographic tools of the kind available in Unix systems.

And users who want better complexity in a password they can still remember need to go long. “[I]t’s time to stop thinking of passwords as words, and more as phrases,” the report states.

“Given that many rainbow tables have reached eight to nine or more characters for recovering NT passwords, length is one of the few effective constraints left,” the report’s authors write. As a result, “ThisIsMyPasswordNoReallyItIs” becomes more effective than “X$nc*(24” — and is easier to remember, to boot.

Based on the evidence to date, it appears that bad password will be with us for as long as people have to create and remember them. But, Trustwave’s report states, improved storage methods and better policies for choosing passwords could do a lot to ameliorate the problem.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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