What is a password?

A password is a word or string of characters used for user authentication to prove identity or access approval to gain access to a resource (example: an access code is a type of password), which should be kept secret from those not allowed access.

The use of passwords is known to be ancient. Sentries would challenge those wishing to enter an area or approaching it to supply a password or watchword, and would only allow a person or group to pass if they knew the password. In modern times, user names and passwords are commonly used by people during a log in process that controls access to protected computer operating systems, mobile phones, cable TV decoders, automated teller machines (ATMs), etc. A typical computer user has passwords for many purposes: logging into accounts, retrieving e-mail, accessing applications, databases, networks, web sites, and even reading the morning newspaper online.

Despite the name, there is no need for passwords to be actual words; indeed passwords which are not actual words may be harder to guess, a desirable property. Some passwords are formed from multiple words and may more accurately be called a passphrase. The term passcode is sometimes used when the secret information is purely numeric, such as the personal identification number (PIN) commonly used for ATM access. Passwords are generally short enough to be easily memorized and typed.

Most organizations specify a password policy that sets requirements for the composition and usage of passwords, typically dictating minimum length, required categories (e.g. upper and lower case, numbers, and special characters), prohibited elements (e.g. own name, date of birth, address, telephone number). Some governments have national authentication frameworks[1] that define requirements for user authentication to government services, including requirements for passwords.

Choosing a secure and memorable password

The easier a password is for the owner to remember generally means it will be easier for an attacker to guess. However, passwords which are difficult to remember may also reduce the security of a system because (a) users might need to write down or electronically store the password, (b) users will need frequent password resets and (c) users are more likely to re-use the same password. Similarly, the more stringent requirements for password strength, e.g. "have a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters and digits" or "change it monthly", the greater the degree to which users will subvert the system. Others argue longer passwords provide more security (e.g., entropy) than shorter passwords with a wide variety of characters.

In The Memorability and Security of Passwords, Jeff Yan et al. examine the effect of advice given to users about a good choice of password. They found that passwords based on thinking of a phrase and taking the first letter of each word are just as memorable as naively selected passwords, and just as hard to crack as randomly generated passwords. Combining two or more unrelated words is another good method, but a single dictionary word is not. Having a personally designed algorithm for generating obscure passwords is another good method.

However, asking users to remember a password consisting of a "mix of uppercase and lowercase characters" is similar to asking them to remember a sequence of bits: hard to remember, and only a little bit harder to crack (e.g. only 128 times harder to crack for 7-letter passwords, less if the user simply capitalises one of the letters). Asking users to use "both letters and digits" will often lead to easy-to-guess substitutions such as 'E' → '3' and 'I' → '1', substitutions which are well known to attackers. Similarly typing the password one keyboard row higher is a common trick known to attackers.

A method to memorize a complex password is to remember a sentence like 'This year I go to Italy on Friday July 6!' and use the first characters as the actual password. In this case 'TyIgtIoFJ6!'. This method even helps against shoulder surfing.

In 2013, Google released a list of the most common password types, all of which are considered insecure because they are too easy to guess (especially after researching an individual on social media):

  • The name of a pet, child, family member, or significant other
  • Anniversary dates and birthdays
  • Birthplace
  • Name of a favorite holiday
  • Something related to a favorite sports team
  • The word "password"