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Forgot password? Five reasons why you need a password manager

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old bunch of keys, rusty keys


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For years, I’ve been reading predictions about new technologies that will render passwords obsolete. Then I click through and inspect the details and I wind up shaking my head. There are plenty of clever identity technologies working their way into the mainstream, but passwords will remain a necessary evil for many years to come.

And unless you want to be a sitting duck on the Internet, you need a strategy for managing those passwords. Large organizations can create sensible password policies and use single-sign-on software, but small businesses and individuals are on their own.

Also: The Best Password Managers of 2019 CNET 

As best practices go, the rules for creating passwords are simple: Use a random combination of numbers, symbols, and mixed-case letters; never reuse passwords; turn on two-factor authentication if it’s available.

There’s some disagreement on whether you should change passwords regularly. I think there’s a strong case to be made for changing passwords every year or so, if only to avoid being innocently caught up in a database breach.

And, as far as I am concerned, the most important rule of all is use a password manager.

I have used several software-based password managers over the years and can’t imagine trying to get through the day without one.

I know people who keep password lists in an encrypted file of some sort. That’s exactly what a software-based password manager does. But that’s where the resemblance stops.

In this article, I explain why I consider a password manager essential, with links to five programs that I recommend. I also tackle some of the arguments I routinely hear from skeptics.

The case for password managers

The five programs that I have examined for this article are all similar in their core features. On a Windows PC or a Mac, you install a program that does the work of saving sets of credentials in a database whose contents are protected with AES-256 encryption. To unlock the password database, you enter a decryption key (your master password) that only you know.

Password managers that sync your password database to the cloud use end-to-end encryption. The data is encrypted before it leaves your device, and it stays encrypted as it’s transferred to the remote server. When you sign in to the app on your local device, the program sends a one-way hash of the password that identifies you but can’t be used to unlock the file itself.

Also: Why nearly 50% of organizations are failing at password security TechRepublic 

The companies that manage and sync those saved files don’t have access to the decryption keys. In fact, your master password isn’t stored anywhere, and if you forget it, you’re out of luck. There’s no known way to crack an AES-256 encrypted file that’s protected with a strong personal key.

That architecture offers five distinct advantages over a DIY solution.

One: Browser Integration

Most password managers include browser extensions that automatically save credentials when you create a new account or sign in using those credentials for the first time. That browser integration also allows you to automatically enter credentials when you visit a matching website.

Contrast that approach with the inevitable friction of a manual list. You don’t need to find a file and add a password to it to save a new or changed set of credentials, and you don’t need to find and open that same file to copy and paste your password.

Two: Password Generation

Every password manager worth its salted hash includes a password generator capable of instantly producing a truly random, never-before-used-by-you password. If you don’t like that password, you can click to generate another. You can then use that random password when creating a new account or changing credentials for an existing one.

Most password managers also allow you to customize the length and complexity of a generated password so you can deal with sites that have peculiar password rules.

With the possible exceptions of John Forbes Nash, Jr., and Raymond Babbitt, mere mortals are not capable of such feats of randomization.

Three: Phishing Protection

Integrating a password manager with a browser is superb protection against phishing sites. If you visit a site that has managed to perfectly duplicate your bank’s login page and even mess with the URL display to make it look legit, you might be fooled. Your password manager, on the other hand, won’t enter your saved credentials, because the URL of the fake site doesn’t match the legitimate domain associated with them.

Also: Google releases Chrome extension to check for leaked usernames and passwords 

That phishing protection is probably the most underrated feature of all. If you manage passwords manually, by copying and pasting from an encrypted personal file, you will paste your username and password into the respective fields on that well-designed fake page, because you don’t realize it’s fake.

Four: Cross Platform Access

Password managers work across devices, including PCs, Macs, and mobile devices, with the option to sync your encrypted password database to the cloud. Access to that file and its contents can be secured with biometric authentication and 2FA.

By contrast, if you manage passwords in an encrypted file that’s saved locally, you have to manually copy that file to other devices (or keep it in the cloud in a location under your personal control), and then make sure the contents of each copy stay in sync. More friction.

Five: Surveillance Safeguard

Password managers generally offer good protection against “shoulder surfing.” An attacker who’s able to watch you type, either live or with the help of a surveillance camera, can steal your login credentials with ease. Password managers never expose those details.

Even armed with those arguments, when I make that recommendation to other people, I typically hear the same excuses.

“I already have a perfectly good system for managing passwords.”

Usually, this system involves reusing an easy-to-remember base password of some sort, tacking on a special suffix or prefix attached to that base on a per-site basis. The trouble with that scheme is that those passwords aren’t random, and if someone figures out your pattern, they pretty much have a skeleton key to unlock everything. And a 2013 research paper from computer scientists at the University of Illinois, Princeton, and Indiana University, The Tangled Web of Password Reuse, demonstrated that attackers can figure out those patterns very, very quickly.

More importantly, this sort of scheme doesn’t scale. Eventually it collides with the password rules at a site that, say, doesn’t allow special characters or restricts password length. (I know, that’s nuts, but those sites exist.) Or a service forces you to change your password and won’t accept your new password because it’s too close to the previous one and now you have another exception to your system that you have to keep track of.

Also: How to manage your passwords effectively with KeePass TechRepublic 

And so you wind up keeping an encrypted list of passwords that are not exactly unique and not exactly random, and not at all secure. Why not just use software built for this purpose?

“If someone steals my password file, they have all my passwords.”

No, they don’t. They have an encrypted file that is, for all intents and purposes, useless gibberish. The only way to extract its secrets is with the decryption key, which you and you alone know.

Of course, this assumes you’ve followed some reasonable precautions with that decryption key. Specifically, that you’ve made it long enough, that it can’t be guessed even by someone who knows you well, and that you’ve never used it for anything else.

If you need a strong and unique password, you can generate one at correcthorsebatterystaple.net, which uses the surprisingly secure methodology from this classic XKCD cartoon.

You definitely shouldn’t write that key down on a sticky note or a piece of paper in your desk drawer, either. But you might want to write down that password and store it in a very safe place or with a very trusted person, along with instructions for how to use it to unlock your password file in the event something happens to you.

“I don’t trust someone else to store my passwords on their server.”

I understand the instinctive reaction that allowing a cloud service to keep your full database of passwords must be a horrifying security risk. Like anything cloud-related, there’s a trade-off between convenience and security, but that risk is relatively low if the service follows best practices for encryption and you’ve set a strong master password.

But if you just don’t trust the cloud, you have alternatives.

Also: 57% of IT workers who get phished don’t change their password behaviors TechRepublic 

Several of the password managers I’ve looked at offer the option to store a local-only copy of your AES-256 encrypted file, with no sync features whatsoever. If you choose that option, you’ll have to either forgo the option to use your password manager on multiple sites or devise a way to manually sync those files between different devices.

As a middle ground, you can use a personal cloud service to sync your password files. 1Password, for example, supports automatic syncing to both Dropbox and iCloud, ensuring that you’re protected even if one of those services is compromised.

“I’m not a target.”

Yes, you are.

If you’re a journalist working on security issues, or an activist in a country whose leaders don’t approve of activism, or a staffer on a high-profile political campaign, or a contractor that communicates with people in sensitive industries, you’re a high-value target. Anyone who fits in one of those categories should take opsec seriously, and a password manager is an essential part of a well-layered security program.

But even if you’re not an obvious candidate for targeted attacks, you can be swept up in a website breach. That’s why Have I Been Pwned? exists. It’s easy enough for a compromised website to force you to reset your password, minimizing the risk of that breach, but if you’ve used that same combination of credentials elsewhere, you’re at serious risk.

Five password managers worth considering

I have personally used all the programs in this list. For each one, I’ve included pricing details as well as a link to security information. Every paid program offers a free trial; I recommend taking advantage of those trials to see if a program is right for you.

1Password

Although this product earned its reputation on Apple devices, it has embraced Windows, Android, and Chrome OS as well. Personal subscriptions are $3 per month; a family option is $5 a month (both prices require annual billing). Password files can be stored locally, synced from 1Password’s servers, or connected to a Dropbox or iCloud account. Team, Business, and Enterprise accounts add 2-factor authentication and start at $4 per user per month. Security details here.

Dashlane

The youngest member of the group has been around for more than six years and has earned a reputation for ease of use. Apps are available for Windows PCs, Macs, Android, and iOS. If your password database includes fewer than 50 entries, you can get by with the free version. The $5-per-month Premium version includes a VPN option, and the $10-a-month bundle adds credit monitoring and identity theft features. Business plans include the same features as Premium, at $4 per user per month. Security details here.

KeePass

If you’re cloud-phobic or if you insist on open source software, this is your option. KeePass runs on every desktop and mobile platform, including most Linux distros, and it’s free (as in beer). Files are stored locally, and you’ll want to master its arcane keyboard shortcuts to fill in passwords automatically. Browser integration is available via third-party plugins; for multi-device use, the program’s built-in sync engine automatically updates the password database in whatever cloud-based storage location you specify. Security details here.

LastPass

Arguably the best known of the bunch, LastPass is free and works on all major desktop and mobile platforms. The service is cloud-based only, with files stored on the company’s servers and synced to local devices. A Premium version ($3 a month) supports advanced 2-factor authentication options; $4 a month covers a family of up to five. Business plans start at $4 per user per month. LastPass suffered an embarrassing data breach in 2015, shortly before the company was acquired by LogMeIn. Security details here.

RoboForm

Launched in 2000, RoboForm is by far the most senior member of the category. The free version supports unlimited logins and stores its database file locally. RoboForm Everywhere is a $24-a-year subscription service that adds cloud backup, sync, and 2-factor authentication features. The Family option ($48 a year) covers up to five users, and business plans cost $35 per user. Discounts are available for multi-year purchases. Security details here.


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Cloud Data Security

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Data security has become an immutable part of the technology stack for modern applications. Protecting application assets and data against cybercriminal activities, insider threats, and basic human negligence is no longer an afterthought. It must be addressed early and often, both in the application development cycle and the data analytics stack.

The requirements have grown well beyond the simplistic features provided by data platforms, and as a result a competitive industry has emerged to address the security layer. The capabilities of this layer must be more than thorough, they must also be usable and streamlined, adding a minimum of overhead to existing processes.

To measure the policy management burden, we designed a reproducible test that included a standardized, publicly available dataset and a number of access control policy management scenarios based on real world use cases we have observed for cloud data workloads. We tested two options: Apache Ranger with Apache Atlas and Immuta. This study contrasts the differences between a largely role-based access control model with object tagging (OT-RBAC) to a pure attribute-based access control (ABAC) model using these respective technologies.

This study captures the time and effort involved in managing the ever-evolving access control policies at a modern data-driven enterprise. With this study, we show the impacts of data access control policy management in terms of:

  • Dynamic versus static
  • Scalability
  • Evolvability

In our scenarios, Ranger alone took 76x more policy changes than Immuta to accomplish the same data security objectives, while Ranger with Apache Atlas took 63x more policy changes. For our advanced use cases, Immuta only required one policy change each, while Ranger was not able to fulfill the data security requirement at all.

This study exposed the limitations of extending legacy Hadoop security components into cloud use cases. Apache Ranger uses static policies in an OT-RBAC model for the Hadoop ecosystem with very limited support for attributes. The difference between it and Immuta’s attribute-based access control model (ABAC) became clear. By leveraging dynamic variables, nested attributes, and global row-level policies and row-level security, Immuta can be quickly implemented and updated in comparison with Ranger.

Using Ranger as a data security mechanism creates a high policy-management burden compared to Immuta, as organizations migrate and expand cloud data use—which is shown here to provide scalability, clarity, and evolvability in a complex enterprise’s data security and governance needs.

The chart in Figure 1 reveals the difference in cumulative policy changes required for each platform configuration.

Figure 1. Difference in Cumulative Policy Changes

The assessment and scoring rubric and methodology is detailed in the report. We leave the issue of fairness for the reader to determine. We strongly encourage you, as the reader, to discern for yourself what is of value. We hope this report is informative and helpful in uncovering some of the challenges and nuances of data governance platform selection. You are encouraged to compile your own representative use cases and workflows and review these platforms in a way that is applicable to your requirements.

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GigaOm Radar for Data Loss Prevention

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Data is at the core of modern business: It is our intellectual property, the lifeblood of our interactions with our employees, partners, and customers, and a true business asset. But in a world of increasingly distributed workforces, a growing threat from cybercriminals and bad actors, and ever more stringent regulation, our data is at risk and the impact of losing it, or losing access to it, can be catastrophic.

With this in mind, ensuring a strong data management and security strategy must be high on the agenda of any modern enterprise. Security of our data has to be a primary concern. Ensuring we know how, why, and where our data is used is crucial, as is the need to be sure that data does not leave the organization without appropriate checks and balances.

Keeping ahead of this challenge and mitigating the risk requires a multi-faceted approach. People and processes are key, as, of course, is technology in any data loss prevention (DLP) strategy.

This has led to a reevaluation of both technology and approach to DLP; a recognition that we must evolve an approach that is holistic, intelligent, and able to apply context to our data usage. DLP must form part of a broader risk management strategy.

Within this report, we evaluate the leading vendors who are offering solutions that can form part of your DLP strategy—tools that understand data as well as evaluate insider risk to help mitigate the threat of data loss. This report aims to give enterprise decision-makers an overview of how these offerings can be a part of a wider data security approach.

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Key Criteria for Evaluating Data Loss Prevention Platforms

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Data is a crucial asset for modern businesses and has to be protected in the same way as any other corporate asset, with diligence and care. Loss of data can have catastrophic effects, from reputational damage to significant fines for breaking increasingly stringent regulations.

While the risk of data loss is not new, the landscape we operate in is evolving rapidly. Data can leave data centers in many ways, whether accidental or malicious. The routes for exfiltration also continue to grow, ranging from email, USB sticks, and laptops to ever-more-widely-adopted cloud applications, collaboration tools, and mobile devices. This is driving a resurgence in the enterprise’s need to ensure that no data leaves the organization without appropriate checks and balances in place.

Keeping ahead of this challenge and mitigating the risk requires a multi-faceted approach. Policy, people, and technology are critical components in a data loss prevention (DLP) strategy.

As with any information security strategy, technology plays a significant role. DLP technology has traditionally played a part in helping organizations to mitigate some of the risks of uncontrolled data exfiltration. However, both the technology and threat landscape have shifted significantly, which has led to a reevaluation of DLP tools and strategy.

The modern approach to the challenge needs to be holistic and intelligent, capable of applying context to data usage by building a broader understanding of what the data is, who is using it, and why. Systems in place must also be able to learn when user activity should be classified as unusual so they can better interpret signs of a potential breach.

This advanced approach is also driving new ways of defining the discipline of data loss prevention. Dealing with these risks cannot be viewed in isolation; rather, it must be part of a wider insider risk-management strategy.

Stopping the loss of data, accidental or otherwise, is no small task. This GigaOM Key Criteria Report details DLP solutions and identifies key criteria and evaluation metrics for selecting such a solution. The corresponding GigOm Radar Report identifies vendors and products in this sector that excel. Together, these reports will give decision-makers an overview of the market to help them evaluate existing platforms and decide where to invest.

How to Read this Report

This GigaOm report is one of a series of documents that helps IT organizations assess competing solutions in the context of well-defined features and criteria. For a fuller understanding consider reviewing the following reports:

Key Criteria report: A detailed market sector analysis that assesses the impact that key product features and criteria have on top-line solution characteristics—such as scalability, performance, and TCO—that drive purchase decisions.

GigaOm Radar report: A forward-looking analysis that plots the relative value and progression of vendor solutions along multiple axes based on strategy and execution. The Radar report includes a breakdown of each vendor’s offering in the sector.

Solution Profile: An in-depth vendor analysis that builds on the framework developed in the Key Criteria and Radar reports to assess a company’s engagement within a technology sector. This analysis includes forward-looking guidance around both strategy and product.

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