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Do Your Passwords Pass Microsoft's Test?

There's a scene in the movie Spaceballs when King Roland, having given in to Dark Helmet's threats, tells him that the combination to his planet's "air shield" is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Exasperated, Dark Helmet responds, "That's the stupidest combination I've ever heard in my life! The kind of thing an idiot would have on his luggage!" Moments later, we learn that this is indeed the combination to the evil President Skroob's luggage. At this point, we're pretty sure that Lone Starr and the rest o

There's a scene in the movie Spaceballs when King Roland, having given in to Dark Helmet's threats, tells him that the combination to his planet's "air shield" is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Exasperated, Dark Helmet responds, "That's the stupidest combination I've ever heard in my life! The kind of thing an idiot would have on his luggage!" Moments later, we learn that this is indeed the combination to the evil President Skroob's luggage. At this point, we're pretty sure that Lone Starr and the rest of the good guys are going to win in the end.

I laughed at this line when I saw the movie back in 1987. OK, it's still funny today. But it's not so funny when you think about how most people create and manage their PC, application, and network passwords. All is not lost, however. Like Lone Starr, the dashing hero of Spaceballs, Microsoft has swooshed in to save the day, offering a password checking program on its site that's sure to help even someone like President Skroob improve his password rating from the much maligned "Weak" to the much coveted "Best."I decided to try to match wits with the Microsoft Password Checker. After a good stretch and several toe touches--to get the blood pumping--I started tapping on keys. My strategy was to lull Password Checker into a false sense of confidence. I started off with the predictable "123," which Password Checker deemed "Weak." Just when Password Checker thought it had me, I started moving my fingers all around the keyboard. My efforts were rewarded with a more hopeful "Medium" designation (Password Checker can be so smug). Seconds later, I had it on the ropes. Using the Shift key at nonstrategic intervals, I broke through with a "Strong" rating. Smiling, but not satisfied, I continued my relentless assault on my keyboard, until, knowing it'd been bested, Password Checker grudging granted me the "Best" designation I so badly wanted.

Wiping the sweat from my brow and sitting back in my chair, my smile quickly faded when I realized I had no idea what I'd just typed. The alphanumeric string I'd fed into Password Checker was impossible to emulate, much less remember.

You might think that testing an actual password on some company's site is a bad idea. And you would be right. Microsoft, recognizing the scary logic behind giving up one's password in order to verify its value, notes on its site that "Password Checker does not collect or store information." In fact, Microsoft doesn't even guarantee the security of a password approved by Password Checker. "It is for personal reference only, to help you gauge the strength of your password," the site says.

When the Internet and E-mail were younger than they are today, I had a ridiculously complex password that granted me access to my Purdue University student E-mail account. The password was impossible for me to remember, and it was issued to me on a sticker, along with the rest of my account information. I promptly applied that sticker to the inside of the plastic case I used to carry around my homework diskettes. As Spaceball's resident Jedi, Yoghurt, might have said, "So clever was I."

Not really, nor is anyone who writes down their passwords on sticky notes or in a notebook in their desk drawer. And people who store their passwords in a file in their computer are just asking for trouble. So,what's the answer? That's easy. Make a bunch of index cards with all your various computer accounts and passwords and commit all of that information to memory. Then burn all those cards and scatter the ashes.

Microsoft offers a number of more practical suggestions on its site. Many systems support the use of the space bar in passwords, so users can create a phrase made of many words (a "pass phrase"), Microsoft's site says, adding, "A pass phrase is often easier to remember than a simple password, as well as longer and harder to guess." Microsoft also describes when you can use a blank password or no password at all, which the company says is more secure than something like "1234," although the blank password option is only available on certain versions of Windows.

A few other tips from Redmond: Passwords should be 14 characters or longer (eight characters or longer at a minimum), for example. They should include a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. A 15-character password composed only of random letters and numbers is about 33,000 times stronger than an 8-character password composed of characters from the entire keyboard. The site also lists six password strategies to avoid, including sequences or repeated numbers, doubling your login name as a password, and storing passwords in an online database.

May the schwartz be with you!

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