Cybercriminals use a lot of deceptive tricks to break into corporate systems, which makes a fake password project seem not only ingenious, but a sort of sweet revenge for beleaguered IT security staff.

IDG News Service, which first published a story about the scheme on sites such as InfoWorld, said the ErsatzPasswords program, as it is known, is the brainchild of a group of researchers from the Purdue University. It is not a completed project but an idea to be discussed at a security conference by one of its creators, Mohammed H. Almeshekah. Essentially, the fake password project describes a way of adding an element to a password via hardware before it is encrypted. As a result, cybercriminals who try to break into a leaked database would be presented with fake passwords, which would take them time to work through before they realize they’ve been duped.

As Effect Hacking noted, source code for ErsatzPasswords is already available for review on Github and takes advantage of the “hash,” or algorithms used to encrypt passwords, by using a “salt,” or extra value created for a service. Unless cybercriminals could get access to the module that was part of the ErsatzPassword process, it is unlikely they would find a way to get full access to a system without some brute-force type of attack. In other words, even if the Purdue researchers’ idea doesn’t completely protect corporate data, the fake password project could make it a lot harder for cybercriminals to steal data or do other kinds of damage.

Of course, malicious attackers are not without their resources and typically use third-party services to get lists of commonly used passwords to make their lives easier. But according to forensic security consulting firm LIFARS, the ErsatzPasswords fake password project would not only make such lists relatively useless, it could also allow network administrators to set up alerts when someone tries to use a fake password to hack into a compromised database. That might enable enterprises to take action before critical information winds up in the wrong hands.

The potential for passwords to be discovered or used against organizations has risen in recent years, to the point where some experts have suggested doing without them entirely. A PayPal executive, for example, recently suggested biometric identifiers might one day offer a compelling and safer alternative, even to encrypted passwords. Until then, it might be worthwhile for IT departments to consider whether ErsatzPasswords could be layered onto their existing security practices — if only because it might make cybercriminals’ lives a little more miserable.

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