Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: You should use unique, complex passwords for every login you have to manage, and you should employ a password management utility to keep track of it all. That is the prevailing advice, but a couple Microsoft researchers have come to the conclusion that it might be the wrong approach.
Two Microsoft researchers, Dinei Florencio and Cormac Herley, in partnership with Paul C. van Oorschot from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, have published a paper titled “Password Portfolios and the Finite-Effort User: Sustainably Managing Large Numbers of Accounts.” The team set out to determine why it is that so many users ignore the established best practices for passwords and whether or not those best practices really make the most sense.
At face value, the guidance makes sense. If you use strong, complex passwords composed of random strings of characters for your logins, and you use a unique password for each site or service, the odds of a password getting cracked or compromised are greatly diminished, and the potential fallout of a password compromise would be limited to that one site or service. It is difficult to remember 10 or 20 or more random strings of complex characters, so using a password vault or password management utility lets you keep track of them all. Simple enough.
The reality, however, is that most people simply ignore the advice to use complex passwords at all, never mind using a unique password for each site or service. The researchers cite evidence uncovered from recent high-profile data breaches—like the 32 million passwords leaked from Rockyou—to prove the vast majority of users are still using ridiculously simple passwords, and many users continue to employ the same simple password on multiple sites. “While admonitions against this are almost universal, ignoring that advice seems equally universal. Clearly, users ﬁnd managing a large password portfolio burdensome. Both password re-use, and choosing weak passwords, remain popular coping strategies."
The trio also reject the standard recommendation to use a password management utility. The problem with password management applications or services is that they introduce a single point of failure. If a user forgets the login information for the password utility, he or she will lose access to all of their passwords, and if the password management service is hacked, all of the user’s passwords can be compromised in one spot.
There is a better way according to the researchers. They suggest it is actually better to use simple passwords—and even re-use those simple passwords—for sites and services that wouldn't provide access to any sensitive or valuable data if compromised. This can free up your mental capacity to remember the few complex passwords for sites and services where it really matters—like logging in to your bank account.
The research paper gets into some advanced mathematical calculations to determine the right combination of risk versus security, combined with an analysis of what average users are capable of and realistic expectations for what average users are willing to do. The team stops short of issuing definitive advice—noting that there are a number of variables involved and that more research is necessary to determine if their approach is truly superior.
Decide for yourself. You know whether or not you’re following the established password best practices. If you’re not—and you’re already re-using simple passwords despite advice to the contrary from every security expert, perhaps you should give this approach a try.