When I was young, I vividly remember a wise man sharing a proverb with me: “Locks are for honest people.” The memory is so vivid because it completely confused me … “If everyone was honest, there would be no need for locks,” I thought, naively. As it turns out, everyone isn’t honest, and if “locks keep honest people honest,” they don’t do anything to/for dishonest people. That paradox lingered in the back of my mind, and a few years later, I found myself using some sideways logic to justify learning the mechanics of lock picking.
I ordered my first set of lock picks (with instruction booklet) for around $10 online. When the package arrived, I scrambled to unwrap it like Ralphie unwrapped the “Red Ryder” BB gun in “A Christmas Story,” and I set out to find my first lock to pick. After a few unsuccessful attempts, I turned to the previously discarded instruction booklet, and I sat down to actually learn what I was supposed to be doing. That bit of study wound up being useful; with that knowledge, I managed to pick my first lock.
I tend to collect hobbies. I also tend to shift every spare thought towards my newest obsession until whatever goal I set is accomplished. To this end, I put together a mobile lock-picking training device — the cylinder/tumbler from a dead bolt, my torq wrench wrapped with electrical tape to prevent the recurrence of blisters, and my favorite snake rake. I took this device with me everywhere, unconsciously unlocking and resetting the lock as I went about my shopping, sat in a doctor’s office or walked around the block. In my mind, I was honing my skills on a mechanical challenge, but as one of my friends let me know, people who saw me playing with the lock in public would stare at me like I was a budding burglar audaciously flaunting his trade.
I spent less money on a lock picking set than I would have on a lock, and I felt like had a key to open any door. The only thing between me and the other side of a locked door in front of me was my honesty. What about the dishonest people in the world, though? They have the same access to cheap tools, and while they probably don’t practice their burgling in public, can spend just as much time sharpening their skills in private. From then on, I was much more aware of the kinds of locks I bought and used to secure my valuables.
When I started getting involved in technology, I immediately noticed the similarities between physical security and digital security. When I was growing up, NBC public service announcements taught me, “Knowledge is Power,” and that’s even truer now than it was then. We trust technology with our information, and if someone else gets access to that information, the results can be catastrophic.
Online, the most common “hacks” and security exploits are usually easily avoidable. They’re the IRL equivalent of leaving valuables on a table by an unlocked window with the thought, “The window is closed … My stuff is secure.” Some of those windows may be hard to reach, but some of them are street-level in high-traffic pedestrian areas. The most vulnerable and visible of access points: Passwords.
You’ve heard people tell you not to do silly things like making “1 2 3 4 5″ your combination lock, and your IT team has probably gotten onto you about using “password” to log onto your company’s domain, but our tendency to create simpler passwords is a response to the inherent problem that a secure password is, by its nature, hard to remember. The average Internet user probably isn’t going to use pwgen or a password lockbox … If you had a list of passwords from a given site, my guess is that you’d wind up seeing a lot more pets’ names and birth years than passwords like S0L@Y#Rpr!Vcl0udN)3mblyR#Q. What people need to understand is that the “secure” password can be just as easy to remember as “Fluffy1982.”
Making a *Usable* Secure Password
The process of creating a unique, usable and secure password is pretty straightforward:
- Start with a series of words or phrases which have a meaning to you: A quote in a movie, song lyric, title of your favorite book series, etc. For our example, let’s use “SoftLayer Private Clouds, no assembly required.”
- l33t up your phrase. To do this, you’d remove punctuation and spaces, and you’d replace a letter in the phrase with a special character. You predetermining these conversions to create a template of alterations to any string which only take minimal thought from you. In the simplest of cyphers, letters become a numbers or characters that resemble the letter: An “o” becomes a “0,” “e” becomes a “3,” an “a” becomes an “@,” etc. In more complicated structures, a character can be different based on where it lies in the string or what less-commmon substitutions you choose to use. Our example at this point would look like this: “S0ftL@y3rPr1v@t3Cl0udsn0@ss3mblyr3qu1r3d”
- Right now, we have a password that would make any brute-forcing script-kiddie yearn for the Schwarts, but we’re not done yet. If someone were to find our cypher and personal phrase, they may be able to figure out our password. Also, this password is too long for use in many sites with password restrictions that cap you a 16 characters. Our goal is to create a password between 15-25 characters and be prepared to make cuts when necessary.
- A good practice is to cut out the beginning or ending of a word. In our example (taking out the l33t substitutions for simplicity here), our phrase might look like this: “so-layer-priv-cloud-no-embly-req”
- When we combine the shortened password with l33t substitutions, the last trick we want to incorporate is using our Shift key. An “e” might be a “3″ in a simple l33t cypher, but if we use the Shift key, the “e” becomes a “#” (Shift+”3″): “S0L@Y#Rpr!Vcl0udN)#mblyR#Q”
The main idea is that when you’re “locking” your accounts with a password, you don’t need the most complicated lock ever created … You just need one that can’t be picked easily. Establish a pattern of uncommon substitutions that you can use consistently across all of your sites, and you’ll be able to use seemingly common phrases like “Fluffy is my dog’s name” or “Neil Armstrong was an astronaut” without worrying about anyone being able to “open your window.”