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Passwords and the Human Factor

Passwords have a strange dual nature. The stronger and safer the password the more likely it will be undermined by human weakness.

It is widely known that passwords are the most common means of access control. It is also common knowledge that passwords are the easiest way to compromise a system. Passwords have two basic functions. First, they allow initial entry to a system. Next, after access, they grant permission to various levels of information. This access can range from public data to restricted trade secrets and pending patents.

The best passwords are a lengthy and complex mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols. The tendency for people when using these formats is to write them down, store them on a hand held device, etc. thus destroying the integrity of the password.

The integrity of passwords can be circumvented through "Human Engineering." People can unwittingly make grave errors of judgment in situations that they may view as harmless or even helpful. For example, a password is shared with a forgetful employee and a system can be compromised. In more ominous cases, a con artist or hacker can phone a na?ve employee and present themselves as senior executives or help desk personnel and obtain that persons password. People have also been duped by callers claiming emergencies, cajoling or even threatening the employees job if a password is not provided.

These human lapses can be addressed through employee training and written policies that provide solid guidance and procedures in these circumstances. Training in information security, including password protocols, should be mandatory for every employee of the enterprise. Management support of this training and the security policy is critical to its success. To be effective, training should be repetitive with quarterly reviews of the company policy. There can also be frequent reminders, such as banners, about password security that appear during logons.

Management must not only support security measures, they must also provide a written and enforced policy statement. These written policies should be developed with assistance from the I.T. department as well as the human resource and legal departments. Written policies should be a part of the employee's introduction to the company and should be reviewed at least twice a year. It is also critical that the employee sign off on the document indicating that they received, read, and understood its contents. Firms that ignore these practices do so at their own risk.

Enforcement is an important partner to training. A policy that is not enforced is far worse than no policy at all. In fact, haphazard enforcement or lack of enforcement can increase a company's liability in many legal actions. To work, a policy must have "teeth". There should be a range of consequences for lapses whether it is a single event or multiple or flagrant incidents. This can range from a verbal warning all the way to termination.

In summary, passwords can be kept more secure by recognizing the human factor. Through management initiative, communication and training, as well as written and enforced policies and procedures, companies can have more control over their information assets and keep their clients and partners much safer.

About The Author

Terrence F. Doheny

President, Beyond If Solutions,LLC



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