How is a Password like Wedding Cake?

Frank Gehry Wedding Cake

I wrote a few weeks ago about how to create an easily remembered password that would be unique to each site you visit, yet simple to reconstruct each time you needed them. And that's great, but what if it's too much pressure in your already crammed-full life? What if the added password security that method offers isn't worth it to you?

You're still in luck, because I've got an alternative. Several, actually, but this is the first I'm going to propose. If the haystack approach was the Ferrari of passwords, then consider this to be the Grand Cherokee.

Here we go, then.

How Secure Is Secure?

How secure you need to be depends on what you're protecting. You'll probably want to protect your bank account differently than you protect your social networking accounts, and those still differently than you protect the web site account for your neighborhood kaffee klatsch group.

It comes down to a variety of factors that you need to consider:

  • What's the risk to you if the account becomes compromised?
  • How much damage could someone do to you if they had access to that account?
  • What would you lose if you lose access to that account?
  • How much effort would it take for you to reconstruct everything in that account from scratch? Would you want to?
  • Are there non-economic intangible losses that could result from someone gaining access to that account (loss of your digital photo collection, for example)?
I'm not suggesting you sit down with a spreadsheet and assess each account according to these criteria, but as you consider how you're going to protect each one, having some objective guidelines will help.

Three Tiers

I suggest breaking your accounts into three groups:

  • Low security, for accounts that represent extremely low risk. These are accounts that either contain nothing of value, or which can easily be lost or reconstructed should compromise happen. For me, these are things like library accounts, neighborhood association accounts, and so on. There is no financial data, no data that can't be replaced associated with these.
  • Medium security. Here, there is some risk, but I need to be able to access these accounts frequently and quickly. Most social networking accounts fall into this category for me. Again, there is little risk of financial ruin.
  • High security. Here is where I put any account that has a stored credit card number or other banking information. If it could cost me money, it goes here. If it has access to money, it goes here. If I'm relying on it for offline storage of important data, it goes here. Dropbox, Flickr, Shutterfly, Google Drive; these services could all potentially exist here alongside Amazon, iTunes, my bank accounts, and so on.
Now that we have our accounts grouped into tiers, we can apply a single password to each tier.

These passwords should increase in complexity from lowest tier to highest. For example, the highest tier password should be longer (10+ characters) than the lowest (6). The highest tier password should contain more types of characters than the lowest (a mix of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols for the highest).

How To Rotate

All passwords should contain digits, because many systems will require you to change them every 30, 60, or 90 days. Having at least one digit in the password allows you to increment the digit(s) and reuse the password 10 times for a single digit or up to 100 times for a password containing double-digits. While this might seem like cheating, it decreases the likelihood that you'll have to write the password down when you change it, and that alone makes it more secure.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about how to actually construct a password to make it memorable without using the haystacking method.

Can you think of other examples of web sites or accounts that might or might not fit into the three-tier system?

Image Creative Commons License Andrew Morrell via Compfight