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Are your passwords safe?

Joe Kissell | May 3, 2013
How to keep your accounts as secure as possible

If your memory is excellent and limiting your passwords to the fewest possible characters is your biggest consideration, then go with a shorter random password - but remember that whereas short used to mean eight or nine characters, nowadays using 12 to 14 keystrokes is safer. Nevertheless, since most people can type long words faster than short bursts of random characters, you may find that a 25-character phrase is more convenient to enter in daily use than a 12-character string of nonsense.

Let a computer pick your passwords

We've sometimes advised people to use mnemonic cues to remember passwords. For example, taking a sentence such as 'I once drank three cups of coffee before realising it was decaf', and using just the first letter of each word, with a capital and a number thrown in, creates 'Iod3cocbriwd' - a reasonably strong password.

But because humans unconsciously tend to introduce patterns into passwords produced through these means (which makes guessing the password easier), we let a computer create a selection of random (but memorable) passwords, and then we choose one that sounds good.

Password helper. Keychain Access's password Assistant can offer suggestions to help you create a secure but memorable password.

You have numerous ways to do this.

If you open Keychain Access on your Mac (in /Applications/Utilities), choose File > New Password Item, and click the key icon next to the Password field, a Password Assistant window will appear. Choose Memorable from the Type pop-up menu, and select a password length.

The utility will produce a password consisting of a combination of words, numbers and symbols (such as 'nineteenth8590.middlingly' or 'baiting325@ certifications'). Don't like the first suggestion that you see? Click the pop-up menu to generate more, or choose More Suggestions from that menu to get another list.

1Password's password generator also has a mode that creates a series of pronounceable syllables (not necessarily English words), with or without intervening digits or hyphens - such as 'liegnicroci', l'ieg7ni2croc5i' or 'lieg-ni-croc-i'.

Pronounceable and memorable. The 1Password app suggests passwords based on pronounceable syllables that will be easy to remember.

To generate them in the 1Password app, choose File > New Item > New Password, click Pronounceable and select the separator and length that you prefer. Click the Refresh button to see another password choice. (The directions are similar when you're using 1Password's browser extensions, although the layout and options are slightly different.)

Have backup plans

If you're afraid you'll forget your memorable passwords, you can write them down, as long as you keep that paper in a safe place. Your wallet may be a fine location (indeed, security expert Bruce Schneier recommends it - see www.schneier. com). Also, consider giving a copy to your spouse or a trusted friend, or putting it in a safe deposit box. If something happened to you, and your family or business associates urgently needed access to your data, the security of storing your passwords only in your head would work against you.


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