Dangle Carrots in Front of Users to Correct Their Terrible Password Hygiene

Co-authored by Quinn North, Senior Incident Response Analyst, IBM Security.

In previous articles, we explored the concept of a feedback loop as it applies to user password selection and password audits. To further expand on these psychological tropes, consider a slightly radical idea in the field of end-user password security. That is, if a user chooses a good password, let them keep it.

Clean Up Terrible Password Hygiene

Good may be subjective here, so let’s clarify that upfront: For our purposes, a good password is one that is over 15 characters, contains nonrepeating alphanumeric and special characters, and does not contain a keyboard pattern (e.g., qwerty, qazwsx, qeadzc, etc). From a purely technical standpoint, this password should create a hash that becomes computationally infeasible to crack with today’s consumer computing power.

Users may complain that such a password is akin to memorizing pi to 35 digits. However, simple tricks, such as passphrases, high-entropy keywords or even modified song lyrics and movie quotes can thwart the dreaded “Pa$$w0rd1” choice that many end users make.

Dangling the Carrot

The idea here is that if users are informed and take the time to create a complex, secure password, they should be rewarded. The rewards enforce good behavior and the users are more likely to continue that behavior.

One reward could be that users who choose a secure password get to keep it slightly longer than others. This would create a successful feedback loop for the user and diminish terrible password hygiene.

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Everyone loathes short password expiry periods. This is proven by the fact that the majority of passwords we audit are often simple variations on a theme — for example, a password like “NYGIANTS” might be changed to “G0NYG1ANTS!”

Surprisingly, it’s much more common for users to increment an existing password where a password such as “Summer!” becomes “Summer!1.” By leveraging a reward scenario and getting users to choose good passwords, we may actually encourage proper password selection throughout the enterprise and eliminate this terrible password hygiene.

Educating End Users

Extending the expiry period for users or acknowledging their strong password in a quarterly password audit via an internal company bulletin are just two examples that would reward strong password selection and would hopefully enforce that behavior in the future. Currently, for most users, there is absolutely no incentive to choose a strong password over a weak one that barely meets the company’s standards.

In today’s landscape of advanced persistent threats and flat legacy networks, security practitioners need to be in constant contact with end users to show them what is possible and what they are risking every time they click. So why not go a step further and reward them for actively taking a part in securing your network?

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Robert Lelewski

Engagement Lead, IBM Security

Robert Lelewski has been in the incident response, computer forensics, e-discovery and computer security realm for 10 years. He is currently an Engagement Lead with IBM Emergency Response Services, leading a team that manages emergencies, develops strategies to mitigate risk in corporate environments and functions as security adviser to Fortune 500 companies.