Why I Love Password Managers

** This article is for beginners in security or other IT folk, not experts. :-D

Passwords are awful. The software security industry expects us to remember 100+ passwords, that are complex (variations of upper & lowercase, numbers and special characters), that are supposed to be changed every 3 months, with each one being unique. Obviously this is impossible for most people, and for those whom it is possible, why would they want to waste all of that brain power on something that is, essentially, meaningless?

I love XKCD and so should you: https://xkcd.com/936/

That’s right, the password itself means nothing. The purpose of the password is to authenticate the user; to prove that *you* are the real, authentic, you. Not another person with the same name or birthday, but the person who owns the account that is being logged into. The person who’s money is in that bank account. The person who tweets all those tweets.

I realize that the security industry is wise to this issue, and NIST has updated it’s password advice, but that still leaves many applications doing things the old way and programmers continuing to implement the old security advice. The result is password reuse; people using the same password over and over, for most or all of their accounts. Last month I heard a speaker that claimed the most common password has changed from “Password1” to “Autumn2018”, “Winter2019” and so on, for every third month. Tragic.

The reason this is a problem is that once one account is breached, or a password stolen, that email & password combo (known as credentials)is likely to work in many, many other places. “Credential stuffing” is the term for when criminals or other bad actors steal many credentials and use scripts to try them all against a larger site, with malicious intent. These attacks are often wildly successful, which makes password reuse very scary from a defender’s perspective.

At least 1% of what I know comes from XKCD: https://xkcd.com/792/

This is where password managers come in. Password managers allow users to generate long and complex passwords, as long and complex as the software will allow. It remembers all of them, keeping them in an encrypted vault. When users go to log into something they either press a button on the browser to have them do it all for them, or they open the password manager, enter the one single password they need to know, and access all of their secrets.

Password managers can protect you against several types of attacks:

  • Password reuse attack (if all of your passwords are different, if one account is breached, the rest are fine)
  • Phishing attacks that target your accounts using URLs that are similar to ones you already use. When you go to the fake URL your password manager will not recognize it, and this should tip you off that you are under attack
  • Brute force attacks; if you are always using very long and complex passwords (because you don’t need to remember them), it would take forever for a brute force attack to uncover your password.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of password managers. Some are free, some are not. Either way, go get one so you can stop wasting brain power on boring things like remembering your passwords.

If you work in an IT environment, you absolutely must have a password manager. I strongly suggest that anyone who uses a computer regularly and has multiple passwords to remember to get one, even if you don’t consider yourself tech savvy. Put every single password in there, change all the passwords you used to have to long randomly-generated ones, and ensure the password you use for your password manager is a passphrase that is an entire sentence (such as: “I work with Azure and I really like it a lot!” or “Tanya Janca is my favourite blog writer and her jokes are never self-depricating”).