Should You Write Down Your Passwords?


Today's editorial was originally published on June 27, 2005 and is being reprinted today as Steve is out of town.

According to Jesper Johansson, senior security program manager at Microsoft, the security industry is giving out the wrong advice by forbidding people to write down their passwords. Strong passwords are impossible to remember and lead to people picking easy passwords or using the same password across all the systems that they access.

And using the same password across all systems us poor security. I tend to agree with that in most cases because if one system is compromised then all of them are. However, for the administrators, it's problematic if all systems have different passwords. Then the cost (in time) of administering these systems goes up. I admit that in most of my jobs I've used the same sa password on all servers and the same administrator password on all systems. The caveat is that we change those passwords often, usually every 30 days and always when an administrator leaves. While a security breach would leave all systems vulnerable, the window of opportunity is fairly small.

Bruce Schneier says that it's impossible to remember strong passwords. And now password cracking programs are hip to the 3 for e and 0 for o replacements (and others). Plus with distributed cracking programs and cheap hardware, it takes less and less time to crack passwords for anyone that truly wants to get at your systems.

It's quite a quandary for people. To me there are two problems we are trying to solve. One is protecting systems for the administrators. These are more technically competent people and should be required to build stronger passwords. The system that I liked the best over the years was the central storage of all our administrator passwords (Windows Admin, SQL, Exchange, service accounts, etc.) in a central storage file. We used Password Safe for this on a network share accessible to administrators only. We changed the file password periodically and scripted changes of the various passwords every 30 days. Usually we'd solicit some theme and assign an administrator to change the passwords.

The other problem is how to get users to create and deal with complex passwords. Of all the suggestions that I've seen, I think writing them down is a good idea. Make stringent requirements, 12 characters, mixed case, numbers, etc., require changes often, but allow them to write them down. Not on sticky notes, not posted, but maybe a card that they keep in their wallet or purse. Or these days, maybe their cell phone.

Now if we could just somehow secure your cell phones. Maybe outlaw Bluetooth?

Steve Jones