A week ago Mr. Honan from Wired.com penned an article on security he titled “Kill the Password: Why a String of Characters Can’t Protect Us Anymore.” He asserts that the password is not effective and a new solution is needed. Unfortunately, Mr. Honan was a victim of hacking. As a result he has a victim’s vendetta. His conclusion is ill conceived even though there are smatterings of truth and good advice.
The password is a security barrier much like a lock on your door. In of itself it’s not guaranteeing protection. You can have a good password akin to a steel reinforced door with the best lock money can buy, or you can have a poor password like “password” which is like a sliding lock like on a bathroom stall. But, just like in the real world a lock isn’t always enough.
You can have a lock, security system, video cameras, guard dogs, and even armed security guards; but none of that guarantees your protection. Even top secret government agencies can be breached by someone who is just that good (as dramatized in movies like Mission Impossible). And that’s the crux of it. There are real hackers out there that are that good. Killer coding ninja monkeys do exist!
We still have locks on our doors, because they still serve their role. Passwords are no different. Security doesn’t end with the password. Most people would agree that stuffing your mattress with your life savings isn’t a good idea even if you have the best locks and security system. Most people agree its safest to have the money in a bank. Essentially this is compartmentalization.
Compartmentalization extends to the online world as well. You’re at risk if your online banking accounts are linked to the same account as your social networks. This is especially true if you’re lackadaisical about linking those social networks to outside sources including apps. The object here is to minimize the damage that can be done. An attacker should not be able to get into your bank account, because they breached your Twitter account.
It’s time to prioritize once you’ve compartmentalized. This simply means deciding how much security you want for the different compartments which I’ll call security zones. Social networking applications like Facebook provide a lot of security features. However, security features are almost always a compromise with privacy and convenience. It’s similar to an engineering adage, but in this case it’s security, convenience, and privacy – pick two. For example, you might use a safe instead of bank to store your money, because the convenience of having your money closer or the privacy of not having the bank records is more important than the added security.
The following are lists of security do’s and don’ts (these aren’t meant to be exhaustive and each could be an article in of themselves):
- Use strong passwords based on a phrase
- Use encryption whenever you can (e.g. HTTPS in Facebook)
- Use a firewall (and learn to use it properly)
- Configure security on your router (including port blocking)
- Keep your operating system patched
- Make routine backups of important files
- Realize that if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product
- Link accounts if at all possible
- Reuse passwords across your security zones
- Use real answers for security questions (e.g. mother’s maiden name)
- Trust anything you download
- Ignore message boxes shown by your system or browser
- Forget to test your backups
- Share your primary email indiscriminately
Only you can decide your comfort level between convenience, privacy, and security. Attackers are going to find exploits in software. Software is complex and depends on other software. The exploits are the responsibility of the software company. But your security is always your responsibility. Complete security is an illusion. But, there is plenty you can do to minimize the risk online just like you do in the physical world. Be safe and enjoy what the Internet has to offer. I expect passwords to be necessary just as long as locks.