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.

Listen to the podcast: Lessons from the NIST Cybersecurity Framework

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