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Are your passwords safe?

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


In the innocent days of our computing youth, many of us had to memorise just one password - the one we used to send and retrieve our email over a glacially slow dial-up connection. User-account passwords? For geeks. Shopping-site passwords? What shopping sites? iTunes Store? App Store? Didn't exist.

In what may seem like a giant step backward, we now juggle dozens of passwords. Fortunately, our Macs can store those passwords and, in many cases, automatically fill them in when needed. But there's more to know about passwords and the Mac's ability to store them. Here's a quick guide to what you can - and can't - do with OS X's passwords.

Keychains are key

Ever since Mac OS 8.6, the Mac has managed passwords with Keychain, Apple's password- management system. The Keychain Access application (/Applications/Utilities) is the front-end to that system. It stores a wide range of items
- including passwords for email, websites, servers, network shares, Wi-Fi networks and encrypted disk images. Whenever you save a password, it's stored in the Mac's keychain.

The Mac places its various keychain files in multiple locations: /System/Library/Keychains; /Library/ Keychains; and youruserfolder/Library/Keychains. Thankfully, the contents of these different keychain files are combined into Keychain Access, so you needn't worry about where they reside.

Keychain Access. Make Apple's password management app your destination when you want to view, change or manage your passwords.

Launch Keychain Access, and you'll see that the window is divided into three panes. The top-left pane lists keychains that are accessible to you. Below that is the Category pane, where you can view specific kinds of things stored in the keychain - passwords, secure notes, certificates associated with your account, encryption keys and certificates used broadly by your Mac.

The largest pane, to the right, displays the contents of selected category items - for example, all of the items that have a password associated with them. Except in the case of certificates, you can double-click on one of these items to open a window where you can view the item's attributes - name, kind, associated account, location (a website or network address) - as well as its access control (meaning the applications and services that are allowed to access the item).

Recover passwords

If you want to retrieve a forgotten password, Keychain Access is the place to go. To learn the identity of a password, select All Items or Passwords in the Category pane, find the item that you want the password for and double-click it. In the resulting window, enable the Show Password option. You'll be prompted for the password for the login keychain. Enter that and click Allow, and the password will appear in the Password field.


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