Seven tips for creating a better password policy

In the not too-distance future passwords will disappear, replaced by biometrics, smart phones and other tricks. Until then system administrators have to deal with users inputting increasingly longer alpha-numeric strings into systems.

For their part users cope with risky behaviour like re-using passwords and storing them on pieces of paper around their desks.

What’s CISO to do? A recent report from Britain’s GCHQ, the communications spy agency, and the country’s Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure, offers seven tips to infosec pros on creating a simpler yet effective corporate password policy.

Usually policies urge staff to come up with a mix of letters, sympbols and numbers. Yet, the report notes, complex passwords don’t usually frustrate attackers, the document notes, yet they make daily life much harder for users.

So it urges a system that doesn’t ask most users to recall complicated passwords. In considering the recommendations note that they aren’t intended to protect what the report calls “high value individuals” using public services.

1 — Ensure default passwords for all devices — including routers, wireless access points, and firewalls — are changed. You do have an inventory of devices, right?

2 — Ease the burden on users. First, don’t put passwords on systems that have no security requirements. Second, use single sign-on and password synchronization so staff have fewer passwords to remember. Third, encourage the use of a password manager if staff need one to keep track of their passwords — but only one that has been approved. Fourth, monitor logins to detect unusual behavior. If there’s nothing unusual staff shouldn’t have regularly change passwords as a security procedure

3– Improve training. Instead of telling staff to creating complex passwords, train them to avoid passwords with personal information (names, dates, sports teams, etc.), simple dictionary words or predictable keyboard sequence. Back it up with technical controls such as account lockout, throttling, or protective monitoring.

4–Help staff create better passwords with a machine-generated system, but ones that

designed for high memorability (such as passphrases, four random dictionary words etc.). Ideally, give users a choice of passwords, so they can select the one they find the most memorable.

5.–Treat administrator and remote user accounts with a higher standard, such as two-factor authentication. And, of course, limit administrator privileges to only those that need it.

6 –Use account lockout and protective monitoring. You’ve done your best to ensure staff are doing the right things. Why give attackers all the time they need to crack them with a brute force attack?

7–Finally, all the work helping to create secure passwords is worthless if they are stored on your system in plaintext. Not only should password databases be hashed, they should also be salted. When implementing password solutions use public standards, such as PBKDF2, which use multiple iterated hashes.

Finally, if you outsource password access services, give the third party clear instructions on how it should protect the credentials. This should form part of the contractual agreement.

Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Featured Download

ITW in your inbox

Our experienced team of journalists and bloggers bring you engaging in-depth interviews, videos and content targeted to IT professionals and line-of-business executives.

More Best of The Web