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How to Password-Protect Your Digital Life

How to Password-Protect Your Digital Life

If you're using weak passwords, you're doing so at your peril. Hardening them may seem like an onerous task, but it's nothing compared to the energy you'll have to expend -- not to mention the losses you might incur -- if you allow an important account to be breached. Cut the job down to size by following a few simple password rules of thumb. Start by setting some priorities.

By Patrick Nelson
06/06/13 5:00 AM PT

It's no longer acceptable to use dates of birth, pet names and so on for passwords. These easily guessed words were never secure, but it didn't matter much in the past -- quite frankly, who cared if a black hat got into your email account? So what?

However, things are much different today, because our lives are now digitally enveloped. Everything from banking to relationships is now inexorably online.

Here's how to protect your digital life with hardened passwords.

Step 1: Strategic Planning

Determine which accounts to start hardening. Aim to systematically re-password the online accounts related to money first.

This can be quite a project, so start with banks and other valuable Web accounts; progress to email and social networks. End up -- on a rainy day -- rebuilding passwords for minor accounts like loyalty cards.

Step 2: Choose Good Passwords

Vary passwords and create different ones for every account. This is particularly important for any sensitive accounts like banking. Make up passwords by hand using a combination of letters, numerals and characters.

Introduce upper-case letters randomly within words; if you spell words, spell them wrong and use multiple unrelated words. Use numbers in lieu of letters from time to time, for example substitute a zero for an "o."

Alternative methods include thinking of a phrase and taking the first letter of each word -- or variations on that theme.

Tip: Crackers can use computer-driven dictionaries, pattern checking and word list substitutions that can attempt millions of passwords per second.

Step 3: Re-invent the Security Question Answer

Do not directly answer the security question. For example, if the security question requests a mother's maiden name or first school, fabricate them.

Tip: Use the same construction technique as in the previous step -- for example, misspelling your answer to beef things up even more. Just don't forget what the answer is.

Step 4: Two-Step Authentication

Use two-factor authentication if it's offered. This method of protection uses two factors, usually a password (something you know) and a phone or other device (something you have in your possession).

I've written about Google's authentication before. Facebook also offers this method of authentication.

Tip: Don't maintain a password list on a device you're using for two-step authentication.

Step 5: Stay Alert

Be aware of social engineering attempts. These are human interventions that are designed to trick you into giving your password to a criminal. Avoid this problem by never giving out your password.

Tip: Reset a password if you're in any doubt that you may have been tricked.

Step 6: Use an Aide-Mémoir

Last Pass, iPassword KeePass and Clipperz are all password managers that range in price from free to US$50. Features include DropBox integration, mobile integration, encryption, and password generation

Tip: Unfortunately, the nature of the beast is that the easier the password is for you to remember, the easier the password is to crack.

Step 7: Looking in Gift Horses' Mouths

Add password protection when offered. Laptops and phones can get lost -- or compromised by casual thieves.

It's not just professional crackers that you need to protect yourself from. Laptops are often fenced and resold.

Step 8: Harden Further

Delete emails from new-account senders that include your password. Always change the initial setup password when prompted.

Set parental controls on in-app purchases for your mobile device. This is an area where a password becomes useful in thwarting any game upgrades that can inexplicably and rapidly occur when you lend your iPad to a child for games -- as has happened to me. I am about US$40 poorer than I was before I lent the tablet, because I left restrictions open.

Tip: Apple's device "Restrictions" are in Settings. Android controls in-app purchases in the Google Play store. Both let you set passwords, which you should not share with kids.

Step 9: Repeat

Do it all again when you've finished. Password cracking is all about time -- how many attempts at a guess can be made over a period.

The more often the password is changed, the less likely it is to be cracked.

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Patrick Nelson has been a professional writer since 1992. He was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson studied design at Hornsey Art School and wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism. His introduction to technology was as a nomadic talent scout in the eighties, where regular scrabbling around under hotel room beds was necessary to connect modems with alligator clips to hotel telephone wiring to get a fax out. He tasted down and dirty technology, and never looked back.


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