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Recent news that 6.5 million passwords were stolen from LinkedIn got us thinking once again about those security words and phrases. Their strength depends on how cleaver or how lazy we are when we dream them up. Which raises the question of how we can make our online accounts a little bit safer. NPR's Wendy Kaufman has some suggestions.
WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Aaron Brown and Erin Gilmer have very different approaches to passwords. When I caught up with them in a suburban Seattle mall, he said...
AARON BROWN: I try to keep as few as possible.
KAUFMAN: And she said I have too many.
ERIN GILMER: They're totally weird. I just make up a different one for a different thing every time, usually doesn't even make any sense. Most of the time I can't remember it later.
KAUFMAN: And therein lies the conundrum. If passwords are simple, they're not very secure. But when they're complicated, they're hard to use. Perhaps not surprisingly, simplicity usually wins out and hackers are happy about that.
EVE MALER: In the LinkedIn case, hackers stole data that LinkedIn had in a data base somewhere that was supposed to be protected.
KAUFMAN: That's Eve Maler. She's a security and risk analyst at Forrester Research.
MALER: What they ended up getting for their trouble was password hashes. They're kind of like encrypted versions of passwords, looks like gobbledygook.
KAUFMAN: But in some cases attackers can decipher gobbledygook and get the actual passwords, especially if those passwords are not very robust. There's no evidence that's happened in this case, at least so far. But many of us use just one password for all our accounts. So if the bad guys have your LinkedIn password, they may also have the one for your online banking.
And researcher Joseph Bonneau, a password expert, says the passwords people pick are often easy to figure out. He notes the grand champion in popularity is 1-2-3-4-5-6.
JOSEPH BONNEAU: Counting from one up to five, or to eight are also pretty popular. Password's pretty popular. There's a few things that are patterns on the keyboard, like QWERTY. And then you kind of get into a couple of nicknames and terms of endearments that you see, like princess is usually in the top 10.
KAUFMAN: Bonneau, who's been studying at Cambridge University ,has looked at a lot of passwords. While interning at Yahoo, he analyzed a database of more than 70 million of them. They were anonymous but he learned some interesting things about the users. For example, Baby Boomers used more secure passwords than their kids. Forty-five to 55 year olds used the strongest passwords and teenagers used the weakest.
And here's the most sobering part of his research. Bonneau says even passwords you think are quite strong may not be tough enough to thwart a committed attacker. So what's an ordinary user to do? Bonneau 's advice is pragmatic: don't sweat the small stuff.
BONNEAU: So really, I just tell people don't reuse your important password. You know, figure out the one or two accounts you have - maybe your banking website and maybe your primary email address - use as good of a password as you can manage for them. And then you can really forget about the rest.
KAUFMAN: He means don't worry too much about the passwords you use on accounts that don't contain sensitive information. That's the password philosophy adopted by John Perkins, a recent high school graduate.
JOHN PERKINS: Something that I'm buying at the local video store will be three characters. And then my bank account will be 20 to 30 characters.
KAUFMAN: And a very strong password would include random, that's right, random upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols. One suggestion is to take a line you can remember and convert it a nonsensical password. So for example the phrase: My kids like to build with two-by-fours would become capital M, the letter K, then L, T, B and so on. That's not likely to show up in a hacker's dictionary.
Another security hint: Make up the answers to security verification questions. There's no rule that says you have to give the name of a pet, just because the form asks for it.
And one final suggestion, and it's a big one: Use a password manager or password wallet. These apps allow you to securely store complex passwords and other account information in one place.
Jennifer Garland simply logs in using a master password and the app does the rest of the work.
JENNIFER GARLAND: It's the one password that I really have to remember, because I think if I lose that password, then I lose all my passwords.
KAUFMAN: And that would present a gigantic password headache.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.