Passwords are the weak link in IT security

Passwords aren't working, and replacement technologies haven't caught on. Why can't we develop a simple way to secure our data?

Passwords weren't the only fail in last summer's widely publicized "epic hack" of tech journalist Mat Honan -- Amazon, Apple and, to a lesser extent, Google and Honan himself share the blame.

But passwords played a part in the perfect storm of user, service provider and technology failures that wiped out Honan's entire digital life. As he concluded in his account of the hack, "Password-based security mechanisms -- which can be cracked, reset and socially engineered -- no longer suffice in the era of cloud computing."

The problem is this: The more complex a password is, the harder it is to guess and the more secure it is. But the more complex a password is, the more likely it is to be written down or otherwise stored in an easily accessible location, and therefore the less secure it is. And the killer corollary: If a password is stolen, its relative simplicity or complexity becomes irrelevant.

Password security is the common cold of our technological age, a persistent problem that we can't seem to solve. The technologies that promised to reduce our dependence on passwords -- biometrics, smart cards, key fobs, tokens -- have all thus far fallen short in terms of cost, reliability or other attributes. And yet, as ongoing news reports about password breaches show, password management is now more important than ever.

All of which makes password management a nightmare for IT shops. "IT faces competing interests," says Forrester analyst Eve Maler. "They want to be compliant and secure, but they also want to be fast and expedient when it comes to synchronizing user accounts."

Is there a way out of this scenario? The answer, surprisingly, may be yes. There's little consensus on what the best solution will be, but consultants and IT executives express optimism about the future. They cite technologies such as single sign-on, two-factor authentication, machine-to-machine authentication and better biometrics as ways to strengthen security -- eventually. For now, each still has its drawbacks.

The Problem With Passwords

Despite years of well-publicized breaches, weak passwords still subvert IT security, but the most obvious solution -- strong passwords -- comes with its own set of problems.

Complex passwords annoy or stymie users, who subsequently take up IT's time asking for password resets, thereby lowering productivity for both groups. The result, laments Maler: "IT ends up with both a lack of usability and a false sense of security."

What's more, both weak and strong passwords are vulnerable to human error. Among other things, they may be written down, stored in visible places online or on personal devices, shared with friends and co-workers, or divulged via phishing schemes.

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