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Original author: 
Jon Brodkin

Aurich Lawson / Thinkstock

It's time to ask yourself an uncomfortable question: how many of your passwords are so absurdly weak that they might as well provide no security at all? Those of you using "123456," "abc123," or even just "password" might already know it's time to make some changes. And using pets' names, birth dates, your favorite sports teams, or adding a number or capital letter to a weak password isn't going to be enough.

Don’t worry, we're here to help. We’re going to focus on how to use a password manager, software that can help you go from passwords like "111111" to "6WKBTSkQq8Zn4PtAjmz7" without making you want to pull out all your hair. For good measure, we'll talk about how creating fictitious answers to password reset questions (e.g. mother's maiden name) can make you even more resistant to hacking.

Why you can’t just wing it anymore

A password manager helps you create long, complicated passwords for websites and integrates into your browser, automatically filling in your usernames and passwords. Instead of typing a different password into each site you visit, you only have to remember one master password.

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Original author: 
Dan Goodin


Thanks to the XKCD comic, every password cracking word list in the world probably has correcthorsebatterystaple in it already.

Aurich Lawson

In March, readers followed along as Nate Anderson, Ars deputy editor and a self-admitted newbie to password cracking, downloaded a list of more than 16,000 cryptographically hashed passcodes. Within a few hours, he deciphered almost half of them. The moral of the story: if a reporter with zero training in the ancient art of password cracking can achieve such results, imagine what more seasoned attackers can do.

Imagine no more. We asked three cracking experts to attack the same list Anderson targeted and recount the results in all their color and technical detail Iron Chef style. The results, to say the least, were eye opening because they show how quickly even long passwords with letters, numbers, and symbols can be discovered.

The list contained 16,449 passwords converted into hashes using the MD5 cryptographic hash function. Security-conscious websites never store passwords in plaintext. Instead, they work only with these so-called one-way hashes, which are incapable of being mathematically converted back into the letters, numbers, and symbols originally chosen by the user. In the event of a security breach that exposes the password data, an attacker still must painstakingly guess the plaintext for each hash—for instance, they must guess that "5f4dcc3b5aa765d61d8327deb882cf99" and "7c6a180b36896a0a8c02787eeafb0e4c" are the MD5 hashes for "password" and "password1" respectively. (For more details on password hashing, see the earlier Ars feature "Why passwords have never been weaker—and crackers have never been stronger.")

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Enlarge / A slide from Steube's presentation outlining a more efficient way to crack passwords protected by the SHA1 cryptographic algorithm.

hashcat.net

A researcher has devised a method that reduces the time and resources required to crack passwords that are protected by the SHA1 cryptographic algorithm.

The optimization, presented on Tuesday at the Passwords^12 conference in Oslo, Norway, can speed up password cracking by 21 percent. The optimization works by reducing the number of steps required to calculate SHA1 hashes, which are used to cryptographically represent strings of text so passwords aren't stored as plain text. Such one-way hashes—for example 5baa61e4c9b93f3f0682250b6cf8331b7ee68fd8 to represent "password" (minus the quotes) and e38ad214943daad1d64c102faec29de4afe9da3d for "password1"—can't be mathematically unscrambled, so the only way to reverse one is to run plaintext guesses through the same cryptographic function until an identical hash is generated.

Jens Steube—who is better known as Atom, as the pseudonymous developer of the popular Hashcat password-recovery program—figured out a way to remove identical computations that are performed multiple times from the process of generating of SHA1 hashes. By precalculating several steps ahead of time, he's able to skip the redundant steps, shaving 21 percent of the time required to crack large numbers of passwords. Slides from Tuesday's presentation are here.

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