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By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2004-10-25 Print this article Print

Hensing also raises the problem of the large number of malware programs that carry embedded dictionaries of common passwords to try on systems they attack. Many have hundreds of passwords, most of them real sucker material like "password" and "asdf." But over time youd expect these to get better and for brute-force cracking programs to be able to try more possibilities.

And not everything is as security-conscious as Windows (yes, my tongue is in my cheek). Barnes and Nobles password policies require you to have a six- to 12-character password composed of "letters, numbers, or Shift/numeric characters only; spaces cannot be used." But the message is getting around; I just set my password to a 129-character passphrase with punctuation and mixed case.

Whether long and effective passphrases would be more acceptable to end users is a matter for research. But if longer, more complex passwords are better, surely passphrases are better than passwords, right? I saw two basic arguments against this in the discussions below Hensings blog and another on the Full-Disclosure list.

The first counter-argument says that if brute-force password crackers work by trying combinations of characters, a passphrase cracker would work by trying combinations of words. I have a hard time believing this could be a practical method of cracking, especially if you consider the possibilities for mixed case and punctuation.

The second argument is related to the first but raises the issue of "entropy" of the password, which refers to the randomness of the bits in the password. I dont fully follow this argument (especially the incoherent ramble I just linked to). Im more persuaded by Hensings position that the greatly increased length of a good passphrase trumps any weaknesses in the randomness of its bits.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, check out Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog. Im on board with this, and Ive already begun to move my own passwords over to passphrases, but its going to be a tough sell to non-professionals. Will the only people willing to use passphrases be the ones who were willing to use complex passwords?

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Check out eWEEK.coms Security Center at for security news, views and analysis.
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Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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