Password reuse across multiple sites creates major security risks. If an attacker can steal credentials and gain access to one account, he or she can also log into every other account that uses the same password. The threat doesn’t just apply to individuals, however. Employees using the same passwords at home and work put the entire enterprise at risk.

Facebook CSO Alex Stamos believes password reuse is the top cause of harm on the internet, according to CNET. When it comes to defending crown jewels against nefarious actors, passwords are a weak link.

The average individual has 150 online accounts protected by passwords, Dashlane reported in 2017. Combine that number with the fact that anywhere from 75 to 93 percent of users reuse passwords across multiple sites, according to a range of surveys conducted over the years, and the gravity of the issue becomes difficult to deny.

A New Approach to the Password Reuse Problem

In an effort to stamp out the bad habit of password reuse, two members of the computer science department at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill proposed a new framework that would enable major web services to coordinate to ensure users don’t use the same passwords.

The authors considered the reality that a framework for password reuse is fraught with risks to users’ security and privacy. However, they asserted that technology can lend a solution to the problem and encouraged thought leaders to consider the benefits of a framework that “enables a server at which a user is setting a password, here called a requester, to ask of other websites, here called responders, whether the user has set a similar password at any of them.”

Neither website would have access to information that reveals the password itself, according to the proposal. The websites would only receive information alerting them to the similarities in the user’s passwords.

Consider single sign-on (SSO) technology, which allows a user to log into one application through his or her LinkedIn or Facebook account. Conceptually, the two websites are sharing information about the user — except, in this case, it’s in lieu of a password. The authors noted that SSO solutions mitigate the problem of password reuse by eliminating the need to create new login credentials.

A Flimsy Framework?

Best practices for cyber hygiene already call for users to create unique passwords for each site, so let’s imagine a scenario in which the proposed framework is implemented. Would behaviors really change?

Rishi Bhargava, co-founder of security operations provider Demisto, said that if sites were to start coordinating under this plan, they could do little more than perhaps alert users to instances of password reuse. If this happens across multiple sites, a user might grow so annoyed that he or she would start using a password manager or modify each password by one character. In other words, the framework would achieve very little.

Still, the likelihood of financial and retail sites going along with the proposal is slim, but the framework is just one of a number of efforts to better secure sites. Organizations and individuals should continue to use two-factor authentication (2FA), but it’s also critical to augment user training.

2FA and Biometrics Provide a More Practical Solution

From a security perspective, the issue is about whether passwords are keeping users safe online. Cybercriminals can use stolen credentials to gain access to multiple sites, so the proposal is a step in the right direction to some degree.

However, the framework has several issues, especially in the European Union (EU), where, according to the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), a password hash is considered personally identifiable information (PII). Passing the hash between services could allow a man-in-the-middle (MitM) attack, but it’s also important to note that EU citizens would need to consent to this transfer.

Still, proposing that two companies with PII belonging to millions of people should share information about their passwords seems a bit like the novel “1984.” What would George Orwell say? Surely other options exist.

Depending on the software provider for tools such as business email, people can use 2FA on dozens of third-party applications. A better solution might be to call for internet services to adopt better password and privileged access integration.

The recent IBM Future of Identity Study found that consumers are increasingly embracing biometrics as a viable solution to the password problem. Users are suffering from password fatigue, which is one reason why the proposed framework doesn’t do enough to solve the password problem. Still, the study revealed that password managers and biometrics do hold promise for the future.

Listen to the podcast: Millennials, Baby Boomers and the Future of Identity

More from Data Protection

Data Privacy: How the Growing Field of Regulations Impacts Businesses

The proposed rules over artificial intelligence (AI) in the European Union (EU) are a harbinger of things to come. Data privacy laws are becoming more complex and growing in number and relevance. So, businesses that seek to become — and stay — compliant must find a solution that can do more than just respond to current challenges. Take a look at upcoming trends when it comes to data privacy regulations and how to follow them. Today's AI Solutions On April…

Defensive Driving: The Need for EV Cybersecurity Roadmaps

As the U.S. looks to bolster electric vehicle (EV) adoption, a new challenge is on the horizon: cybersecurity. Given the interconnected nature of these vehicles and their reliance on local power grids, they’re not just an alternative option for getting from Point A to Point B. They also offer a new path for network compromise that could put drivers, companies and infrastructure at risk. To help address this issue, the Office of the National Cyber Director (ONCD) recently hosted a…

Why Quantum Computing Capabilities Are Creating Security Vulnerabilities Today

Quantum computing capabilities are already impacting your organization. While data encryption and operational disruption have long troubled Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs), the threat posed by emerging quantum computing capabilities is far more profound and immediate. Indeed, quantum computing poses an existential risk to the classical encryption protocols that enable virtually all digital transactions. Over the next several years, widespread data encryption mechanisms, such as public-key cryptography (PKC), could become vulnerable. Any classically encrypted communication could be wiretapped and is…

How the CCPA is Shaping Other State’s Data Privacy

Privacy laws are nothing new when it comes to modern-day business. However, since the global digitization of data and the sharing economy took off, companies have struggled to keep up with an ever-changing legal landscape while still fulfilling their obligations to protect user data. The challenge is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution regarding data privacy's legal requirements. Depending on the location and jurisdiction, data privacy laws can vary significantly in terms of scope and enforcement. But while the laws…