News

Report: User Passwords Not Sophisticated Enough

Trustwave's 2012 Global Security Report, a comprehensive look at the security landscape, includes a section on passwords that delves into weaknesses in user behavior, administrative policy and the technologies used to manage passwords.

The company's SpiderLabs studied 2.5 million passwords used at organizations and found that about 5 percent of them used a variation on "password," such as "Password1," "Password2," "Passw0rd," "Password123," and plain old "password." Another popular one was variations on "welcome," such as "WeIcome," "Welcome1," and so on. And the always-reliable "123456" made an appearance, too.

Why? One reason, the report states, is that password management systems allow it, especially when set to their lowest level of complexity.

For the study, the lab team focused on Windows Active Directory, since just about every organization uses it to store user accounts. The default settings for AD require that passwords be at least six characters long and contain characters from at least three of five categories: uppercase, lowercase, numerals between 0 and 9, special characters, and Unicode characters. It also requires that the password not contain three or more characters from the user's name.

Users will chose the path of least resistance, particularly if they have to remember a password, so they'll usually choose the easier three categories: upper- and lowercase letters and throw in a number. Hence, a lot of "Password1" — which, the report points out, meets the same complexity requirements as "X$nc*(24," or any other combination that makes use of all five categories.

And even though most organizations require that passwords be changed every so often, Windows AD's default settings don't forbid changing to similar passwords, so a user can change "Password1" to "Password2" to "Password3," the report states.

When people aren't falling back on "password" and "welcome" variations, they still tend to build their passwords around common, correctly spelled English words. Popular sources of passwords included months of the year, U.S. states, the seasons and names found in the list of the top 100 babies' names for 2011.

And they don't mix it up much with special characters. Of Trustwave's list of the 25 most common passwords, only one — "[email protected]"— contained a special character. Such passwords are not only vulnerable to a dictionary attack but fairly easy to guess outright.

But there are things administrators and users can do to make them better, Trustwave says.

"The solution to password security starts with eliminating weaker, older and insecure technologies," the report states. "In the case of Windows AD, the use of LAN Manager for password storage simply needs to go."

LAN Manager was originally used as a hashing algorithm for pre-Windows NT systems, and even though Microsoft disabled it starting with the Vista and Server 2008 operating systems, it still is common with XP and Server 2003 systems.

For Windows systems, Trustwave recommends using NT Hash-based storage, which allows for a larger, 128-bit key space and Unicode. The report also recommends using third-party cryptographic tools of the kind available in Unix systems.

And users who want better complexity in a password they can still remember need to go long. "[I]t's time to stop thinking of passwords as words, and more as phrases," the report states.

"Given that many rainbow tables have reached eight to nine or more characters for recovering NT passwords, length is one of the few effective constraints left," the report's authors write. As a result, "ThisIsMyPasswordNoReallyItIs" becomes more effective than "X$nc*(24" — and is easier to remember, to boot.

Based on the evidence to date, it appears that bad password will be with us for as long as people have to create and remember them. But, Trustwave's report states, improved storage methods and better policies for choosing passwords could do a lot to ameliorate the problem.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is the managing editor of Government Computer News.

Featured

  • Surface and ARM: Why Microsoft Shouldn't Follow Apple's Lead and Dump Intel

    Microsoft's current Surface flagship, the Surface Pro X, already runs on ARM. But as the ill-fated Surface RT showed, going all-in on ARM never did Microsoft many favors.

  • IT Security Isn't Supposed To Be Easy

    Joey explains why it's worth it to endure a little inconvenience for the long-term benefits of a password manager and multifactor authentication.

  • Microsoft Makes It Easier To Self-Provision PCs via Windows Autopilot When VPNs Are Used

    Microsoft announced this week that the Windows Autopilot service used with Microsoft Intune now supports enrolling devices, even in cases where virtual private networks (VPNs) might get in the way.

  • Most Microsoft Retail Locations To Shut Down

    Microsoft is pivoting its retail operations to focus more on online sales, a plan that would mean the closing of most physical Microsoft Store locations.

comments powered by Disqus

Office 365 Watch

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.