The New NIST Digital Identity Guidelines and What They Mean to You

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently released a draft of its Digital Identity Guidelines that included some significant and noteworthy changes. While the public comment period has closed, the document still has to go through an internal review process that is expected to last until the end of this summer.

Big Changes to the NIST Guidelines

The latest document removed three items that were previously part of the firm’s federal recommendations and guidelines on passwords.

  • Password complexity rules: Having a specific composition such as mixed case or symbols is old-school thinking. Many users figure out ways around these rules by substituting characters for letters, which are well-known to fraudsters anyway.
  • Regularly scheduled password changes: Passwords should be changed when a breach occurs or after a specific threat. Users often end up defeating the purpose by making simple changes to their passwords when required, such as adding a number on the end, that are easily guessed.
  • Password hints and knowledge-based questions: These don’t work, especially since social network posts and social engineering schemes make it easier to figure the answers out.

Instead, the NIST recommended that security tools screen passwords against lists of dictionary words, known compromised passwords, and common usernames such as “admin” and “root.” Password guidelines should also prevent repetitive or sequential patterns. The organization further recommended a minimum length of eight characters for passwords and advised that accounts be automatically locked after a series of incorrect login attempts. To prevent modern brute-force attacks, the guidelines stated that analysts should use blacklists, secure hashed storage and rate throttling.

“We reviewed a lot of research in the space and determined that composition and expiration did little for security, while absolutely harming user experience. And bad user experience is a vulnerability in our minds,” noted Paul Grassi from NIST, one of the primary authors of the document, according to CSO Online.

The Shifting Password Paradigm

NIST also noted that passwords sent via SMS are easily intercepted. It recommended using other multifactor authentication methods. Additionally, password tables should be hashed with the strongest possible algorithms, the draft said.

With these updated guidelines for access management and authentication, security professionals and individual users are better positioned to take steps to secure their networks and accounts for the foreseeable future — without compromising the user experience.

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David Strom

Security Evangelist

David is an award-winning writer, speaker, editor, video blogger, and online communications professional who also advises numerous startup and well-established technology ventures. He began his career as an in-house IT analyst and has founded numerous technology print and online publications, such as editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine and as part of the launch team of PC Week's Connectivity section. David has written two books and spoken around the world at various conferences and been on national radio and television talking about network technologies. He continues to build websites and publish articles on a wide variety of technology topics geared towards networking, security, channel, PC enthusiasts, OEMs, and consumers. In addition to these activities, he consults to vendors and evaluates emerging technologies, products, strategies, and trends to help position and improve their technology products.