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UK study: Passwords often easy to crack


2002-03-13 - cnn.com

From Andrew Brown

(CNN) -- Computer passwords are supposed to be secret. But psychologists say it is possible to predict a password based on the personalities of users or even what is on their desks.

Objects around the office may not seem important. But they may help someone to crack your computer password and masquerade as you, sending e-mails, accessing files and even plundering your online bank account.

According to a recent British study, passwords are often based on something obvious. Around 50 percent of computer users base them on the name of a family member, partner or a pet. Thirty percent look to a pop idol or sporting hero.

Such password inspirations could be a problem.

"Particularly if you are a fan of a football club. Then you might well have something related to that football club on your desk at the office. You might have a mug or a pen. And if someone wants to try to hack into your system, then they might try using that as your password," said Helen Petrie of City University in London.

It is not always that easy. Psychologists say passwords often reflect something about our subconscious. Users may not even know what inspires them to chose one word rather than another.

"It seems to be something about the first thing that comes into your mind when you're asked to give a password," Petrie said.

According to Petrie, 10 percent of users pick passwords that reflect some kind of fantasy. Often these contain sexual references. And 10 percent use cryptic combinations. They are among the toughest to break.

To protect online customers, financial institutions advise them to enhance security by using random words and letters and to change a password frequently.

"Even with the strongest, fastest computer these days, it still takes some time to crack a strong password," said Eugene Law of Cash Financial Services Group.

Experts say that whatever you do, do not base a password on your own name or date of birth.

And when you are asked to select a password, do not simply type in password. That one is not too hard to crack.
 
 

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