Five tips to make your passwords better

James Jeffries | 29 September 2016

Password Generater min

While security is everyone’s responsibility, it’s not always easy to get right. Our “Security Best Practices” blog series will provide simple tips that enable users to improve their online security. These articles aren’t for pros, but for those trying to get their basics down.


In our recent research paper, we found that 97% of the top 1,000 organizations have leaked credentials online. It’s never been more important to have strong password hygiene. Passwords aren’t perfect, but they are one of the main tools we use to keep our information secure. As we discussed in our recent blog, poor password management can lead to serious issues. Indeed, Verizon recently stated that “63% of confirmed data breaches involved leveraging weak, default, or stolen passwords.” But what can you do about it? Here are five tips to protect you against co-workers, hacktivists and cybercriminals.

 1. Create strong passwords

“Strong” means it would be difficult for someone to guess your password. To make yours a strong one, we advise using:

  • At least 12 characters
  • Both upper and lowercase letters
  • At least one number (avoid birthdays or other personal details)
  • At least one symbol (avoid ambiguous characters such as £, # or | which aren’t available on all keyboards)
  • Not using single dictionary words

2. Never re-use passwords

If you re-use a password on different sites and it gets stolen from one, an attacker could get access to all those accounts. Still, remembering multiple complex passwords is impossible for most of us, so use a password manager or the password series method.  

  • Password Managers

A password manager is a type of software which helps users create, store, share and organise passwords, without the need for remembering or writing them down.  LastPass, KeePass and Dashlane are among the most well known, but there are many others.

But remember, if the password manager is compromised or your main password is stolen, ALL your accounts will be compromised. So have a strong password and use multi-factor authentication.

  • Password Series Method

If you don’t want to use a password manager, you can make a password series by slightly changing one strong password depending on where it’s being used.

Password Creation

Figure 1: Every hacker has seen this so don't use "correcthorsebatterystaple"! (source: xkcd.com/936)

Coming up with an initial strong password can be difficult. The xkcd cartoon isn’t wrong, but attackers can be clever, so we suggest adding extra complexity.

First, pick a few random words including uppercase characters and improve on them with numbers and symbols. For example: 46green%Gremlin)Roses. Alternatively, you can use the Schneier Scheme for easy memorisation. Never use memorable dates, relatives’ names or other easy-to-find information about you. 

To make your series, add something unique about the site/service to your password. An example rule: add the first and last letters of the site’s name after the second word.

Site

First and last letters

Resulted password

yahoo.com

yo

46green%Gremlinyo)Roses

google.com

ge

46green%Gremlinge)Roses

facebook.com

fk

46green%Gremlinfk)Roses

Finally, to limit repeating passwords (e.g. adobe.com and apple.com) you can have a toggle, such as sometimes adding the two extra letters after the first word instead of the second: 46greenae%Gremlin)Roses vs 46green%Gremlinae)Roses.

You can use both methods in combination. For example, have all work-related accounts on a password manager and maintain a password series for personal ones.

3. Use Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Many sites now offer MFA (aka 2FA), so a secondary, one-time proof of identity is needed alongside the password to log in. This can be a device (e.g. SecureID token), software (e.g. Google Authenticator) or an SMS message.

Using MFA means even if your password gets stolen, your account doesn’t. At the least, use it on your important accounts such as email, Facebook and password managers.

4. Change your passwords

If you suspect your accounts may have been compromised, change all your passwords.

Unfortunately, our passwords can sometimes get stolen without us knowing it, so we suggest changing all your passwords once a year. Just create a new password series or use your password manager’s solution for this. 

5. Don’t

  • Keep passwords in notebooks or on sticky notes
  • Let your browser remember passwords
  • Provide obvious password clues in the login hint or security question