The password: Enhancing security and usability

January 04, 2021

Examining best practices for password maintenance. An overview of the NIST guidelines for password security.

 

Passwords have become a part of our daily lives at work and at home. Even as new identification tools have gradually entered the marketplace, the password has remained a constant for many websites and applications.

Unfortunately, password best practices have not evolved to match sophisticated cybercrime operations.

Weak and stolen passwords accounted for 81 percent of hacking-related breaches in a study conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Further, the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) found more than 1,100 breaches in the U.S. in every year since 2016, with a high of 1,632 in 2017. 

ITRC has identified more than 1.6 billion records that were exposed by data breaches since it began tracking incidents back in 2005. In many cases, investigations determined that the password was the weakest link. These findings have unleashed widespread scrutiny around authentication practices.

Companies develop their data authentication practices based on standard-setting organizations like the NIST, which sets guidance for U.S. government agencies. Although its guidelines for passwords and authentication have seen minor revisions since NIST first released them in 2017, their main themes remain the same.

After analyzing what makes an effective password (and what doesn’t), the institute argues for a more flexible, simpler approach to password management. However, these standards still aim to maintain effective authentication and robust security controls to prevent unauthorized access to data and resources.

 

A look at the NIST password guidelines

While traditionally in favor of increasingly complex passwords and passphrases, NIST now argues for a usability-focused approach, asserting that users will opt for passwords they can easily remember.

For example, a password that adheres to the traditional randomized mix of characters may be as simple as “P@ssw0rd,” which hackers are capable of cracking quickly. Another example would involve a user bypassing creating a new password at expiry, such as using a sliding number scale at each expiration, (e.g., “Password1, Password2, Password3…”). If hackers previously obtained the user’s credentials, they may easily guess any successive passwords.

In short, the NIST guidelines suggest the following:

  • Reduce how often employees are required to change passwords
  • No longer require complexity of characters in passwords
  • Enforce a required minimum password length of eight characters
     

NIST recommends that individuals opt for harder-to-guess passphrases involving strings of random words and characters. This would deter individuals from using simple passwords and make it less likely to circumvent the purpose of the enforced password policies.

With these guidelines, NIST looks to fold passwords into the larger authentication process. A usable but hard-to-guess password, combined with other authentication factors like biometric information or personal tokens, can create a more meaningful (and more secure) data security system.

 

Where do passwords fit in the authentication process?

When we talk with our customers, we define authentication with three factors:

  1. Something a person knows 
  2. Something a person has
  3. Something a person is
     

Passwords fall into the first category. However, the best method for authentication is a strong, layered approach that requires more than one type. We’ve already witnessed the weaknesses of category 1 identification, whether it’s a password used multiple times across multiple logins or easy-to-guess security questions.

"A usable but hard-to-guess password, combined with other authentication factors like biometric information or personal tokens, can create a more meaningful (and more secure) data security system."

Use these guidelines as a reason to review your password policy

NIST guidelines intend to relax the complexities from a password system. However, passwords aren’t going away anytime soon. Whether or not your company decides to follow the NIST guidelines, it’s important to periodically review your authentication practices and information security training. Here are some best practices.

1. Use passphrases instead of password

  • Avoid commonly used words in these phrases, but use words that are easy for you to remember.
  • Avoid any personal information about you or your family. The longer, the better – each letter makes it more difficult for a hacker to crack.
     

2. Educate employees on lesser-known dangers of password use

  • Show them to be suspicious of any social engineering or phishing attempts to gain password information.
  • Ask that employees do not store passwords in documents on their local desktop or on papers in their working area.
     

3. Assess the risks of any documents accessible by employees

  • Review current access rights for your documents, and determine whether access is appropriately restricted.
  • Determine if any high-risk resources should require multi-factor authentication or other mitigating controls.
     

4. Review detective controls, including logging and monitoring

  • This allows for quick recovery of incidents and the ability to investigate what went wrong in order to prevent further incidents.
     

5. Periodically examine applications, operating systems and databases

  • Focus on identifying default passwords still in use, especially for privileged accounts.

 

Password management is just one part of the process

While NIST encourages a less complex password system, those passwords are just one part of the authentication process. With cybercrime growing more sophisticated each year, you don’t want to be caught off guard.

 

If you need help updating your password system, or if you want to strengthen your authentication process, NIST offers more resources on its website.

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