Are billion year passwords weak?

No.  Just the people who use them.

Passwords of reasonable strength (8 characters or more consisting of upper/lower case and special keys) coupled with timely expiration, are secure.  Passphrases with comparable measures are equally secure.  The systems and users are currently the weakest links in the security chain.  Security Chain.jpg

The interfaces and tools which we input the passwords may be vulnerable.  This includes but is not limited to key-loggers, sniffers, input redirections, etc.  But it is the user, where the most significant weakness exists.  They can be duped into divulging their passwords (phone, web, chat, email, etc.) and in many cases make them available in other ways (sticky note under the keyboard).

A recent Newsweek article covered the topic of building a better password:

"...a short but hard-to-remember string like "J4fS<2" can be broken by what is called a brute-force attack (in which a computer attempts "a," then "ab," then "abc," and so on) in 219 years, while a long but easy-to-remember phrase like "du-bi-du-bi-dub" will stand for 531,855,448,467 years. (Two hundred nineteen years is actually very good, but the lesson remains: simpler can be stronger.) The idea of passphrases isn't new. But no one has ever told you about it, because over the years, complexity-mandating a mix of letters, numbers, and punctuation that AT&T researcher William Cheswick derides as "eye-of-newt, witches'-brew password fascism"-somehow became the sole determinant of password strength."

The difference between passwords which can be cracked in two-hundred versus a billion years is immaterial if users are forced to change passwords every few months.   The bad guys just don’t have the time to crack the password before it is changed or the data is sufficiently aged to not be of value. 

To undermine cracking attempts, we force users to use 'strong' passwords so that dictionary attacks are fruitless and threat agents must resort to a laborious brute force attack, trying massive numbers of combinations in order to be successful.  All passwords can be cracked via brute force, but it takes time.   It becomes an exercise in how many attempts can be made over a given period.  The faster the process the more combinations can be tried and therefore the shorter the time to discover the one which works.  The length and possible characters determines the number of combinations.

Undermining the strength of a password is not the biggest concern.  It is far more likely for a password to be sniffed on the network, captured on a system, or duped from a user, rather than be cracked.

The most significant vulnerability is with the user and systems where passwords are entered and stored.  There is no practical benefit to further abuse users with new diabolical password schemes.  We should pay less attention to stronger and better password formats and instead invest in better behavioral controls, user education, and the strengthening of system and interfaces.

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Matthew Rosenquist

About Matthew Rosenquist

Matthew Rosenquist is a Cybersecurity Strategist for Intel Corp and benefits from 20+ years in the field of security. He specializes in strategy, measuring value, and developing cost effective capabilities and organizations which deliver optimal levels of security. Matthew helped with the formation of the Intel Security Group, an industry leading organization bringing together security across hardware, firmware, software and services. An outspoken advocate of cybersecurity, he strives to advance the industry and his guidance can be heard at conferences, and found in whitepapers, articles, and blogs.