Password Policies: Security vs Productivity

A password policy can include a number of parameters. Let’s examine them from both security and productivity perspectives:

  • Minimum password length defines how many characters a password should consist of. The longer the password, the more resistant it is to a brute force attack given other password best practices are followed. Longer passwords, however, are usually harder to remember which may lead to instances of writing passwords down.
  • Password complexity. If a password includes a combination of upper- and lowercase characters combined with numbers and special characters, the harder it is to run a dictionary attack against such a password. Similarly to long passwords, complex passwords are usually harder to remember.
  • Password renewal policy ensures that users regularly change their passwords. This helps to minimise the potential security impact of compromised passwords. Although this policy is beneficial from the security perspective, users may struggle to come up with new passwords that satisfy security requirements.
  • The policy restricts users to set passwords they used before. This forces them to come up with new passwords to make sure that if the password was compromised it is not reused. Although this policy is beneficial from the security perspective, users may struggle to come up with new passwords that satisfy security requirements.
  • Locking out a user’s account after a number of wrong password attempts is a strong measure against a brute force attack. The attacker in this case is unable to try all possible combinations using specialized software. From the usability perspective, however, legitimate users might enter their passwords incorrectly as well and be unable to access the system. This may result in the increased number of calls to the company’s Help Desk or increased time for manual password reset.

Password complexity and usability explained in one comic.

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