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Issue: 60 - Dec 16, 2013
Too Many Passwords
By: Robert Malinowski, DVM, MA
Robert Malinowski, DVM, MA

Behold, the wonders of technology.  Everything these days seems to be on the web and but a few mouse clicks away.  Email, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, online banking, car loans and retirement funds.  Most things that were once done on paper are now done electronically.  There’s a web portal for just about every aspect of your modern life.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest headaches associated with using all of these resources is dealing with passwords.  Sure, it’s a good thing that sites use passwords, since you don’t really want all of your personal information just floating around out there, but keeping track of all this information can be very cumbersome.  Plus, web sites today seem to be more demanding with their password policies. 

There are five major issues that most people seem to have regarding passwords:

  1. Your password isn’t strong enough.  More and more web sites are requiring “strong” passwords.  This makes it much more difficult for other people to guess your password, or to perform a brute force attack to access your information.  Instead of using something simple that can easily be guessed, such as your last name, birthday, or name of a pet, most modern sites require your password to be a combination of letters, numbers and special characters.  Instead of having a password such as “mypassword”, you’ll need to create something like “iHatePa$$words!”. 
  2. Forgotten password.  This is probably the most common issue with passwords.  Now that you’ve created the ultra complex password (see above) that a site required, what are the odds that you’re actually going to remember it?  When your password was your dog’s name, life seemed to be much simpler.
  3. Using the same password.  I think we’re all guilty of this one.  After some trial and error, you finally come up with that perfect password (containing letters, numbers and symbols) that satisfies the requirements of your favorite web site.  And it’s one that you actually seem to remember.  After achieving this wondrous victory, you decide to use this very same password on every other web site you access.  While this seems to make sense initially, saving you the hassle of creating and remembering different passwords for different sites, it can lead to a lot of trouble down the road.  If someone manages to gain access to one of your sites, they’ll be able to quickly gain access to everything using that same password.  The password from your Facebook account (that you use twice each year) suddenly becomes a gateway to every aspect of your digital life, including financial information.
  4. Writing your password down.  This is another common issue for most people.  Instead of trying to memorize passwords, you may feel compelled to write down all of your passwords in a notebook, or place them on a sticky note on your monitor.  This is a very bad idea, since that notebook (or sticky note) could easily fall into the wrong hands.  Never write your passwords down on paper, share them with others, or send them via email.
  5. Neglecting to change your passwords.  Most people are creatures of habit.  We find something that we like, that works, and we stick with it.  You put a lot of work into crafting that perfect, complex password.  You actually managed to memorize it.  However, you shouldn’t use that same password forever.  Web sites are frequently compromised, which could lead to security compromises and data leaks.  To be safe, change your password frequently.  Some systems automatically prompt you to change your password after a set amount of time.  This typically ranges from thirty days to one year.  I recommend changing your password every three months.

At this point, you probably feel even worse about your password dilemmas.  To be safe in our digital world, you need to create strong, complex passwords, change them frequently, share them with no one, avoid writing them down, memorize them flawlessly, and use a different one for every site that you frequent.  For just about everyone on planet Earth, this seems next to impossible.  How can one accomplish such a complex task without ingesting copious amounts of Tylenol® daily?

Luckily, there are some tools out there that can help.  Software called Password Mangers exist to do the difficult work, generating and storing complex passwords for you.  There are many different products on the market, storing your (encrypted) passwords on a USB drive, your smartphone or in the cloud.  You can even place a password on your password list, in case that device should fall into the wrong hands.  Of course, using Password Managers isn’t a perfect solution either.  You will still need to be vigilant, change your master password often, and avoid sharing it (or your USB drive or smartphone) with anyone else.  However, using this software will make generating complex passwords much easier, and will also help you to avoid memorizing (all but one of) your passwords.  While there are many different options out there, a product called 1Password (https://agilebits.com/onepassword/ios) seems to be one of the best.  It works on multiple platforms (Windows, Apple) and also supports mobile devices (Andoid, iPhone).  I highly recommend exploring a few different programs to see what works best for you.