Guidelines for Strong Passwords

Prepared May 9, 2016 by Allan Chen.
Credit to Lafayette College ITS "Guidelines for Strong Passwords" for much of this content.

The Office of IT (OIT) requires that passwords used to access any Muhlenberg College system be strong. It is advisable that all passwords used to access any system, even those not associated with Muhlenberg (e.g. Facebook, Google), be strong.

Strong passwords are difficult to guess by either a person or a machine (through brute-force methods).  A number of characteristics of strong passwords are listed below. The more one includes in any given password, the stronger it will be.


CHARACTERISTICS OF STRONG PASSWORDS

  • At least 8 characters—the more characters, the better
  • A mixture of both uppercase and lowercase letters
  • A mixture of letters and numbers
  • Inclusion of at least one special character, e.g., ! @ # ? ]

Note: do not use < or > in your password, as both can cause problems in Web browsers

A strong password is hard to guess, but it should be easy for you to remember—a password that has to be written down is not strong, no matter how many of the above characteristics are employed.

All Muhlenberg systems can support strong passwords based on the characteristics above. However, some outside systems may not support all of the above characteristics. For example, a system may not recognize case, may have a limit on the number of characters, or may not allow special characters.  OIT recommends that in these situations users incorporate as many strong password characteristics as the system will allow.


EXAMPLES OF WEAK PASSWORDS

  • Any word that can be found in a dictionary, in any language (e.g., airplane or aeroplano).
  • A dictionary word with some letters simply replaced by numbers (e.g., a1rplan3 or aer0plan0).
  • A repeated character or a series of characters (e.g., AAAAA or 12345).
  • A keyboard series of characters (e.g., qwerty or poiuy).
  • Personal information (e.g., birthdays, names of pets or friends, Social Security number, addresses).
  • Anything that’s written down and stored somewhere near your computer.
  • Change it regularly—once every three to six months.
  • Change it if you have the slightest suspicion that the password has become known by a human or a machine.
  • Avoid typing it on computers that you do not trust; for example, in an Internet café.
  • Never save it for a web form on a computer that you do not control or that is used by more than one person.
  • Never tell it to anyone.
  • Never write it down.
  • Think of a word or phrase, and then substitute the letters with numbers and special characters and mix the case. For example,
    • Snoopy and Woodstock becomes Sno0py&ws
    • In the dog house becomes !nTh3dawgHs
    • Let’s have dinner at 8:00 p.m. becomes Lhd@800pm
    • Think of a word and a number, then intermix them and mix the case. For example, your elementary school name (Main Street Elementary) and your pet’s birth month and year (12/96) becomes m1A2/i9n6

TIPS FOR KEEPING YOUR PASSWORD SECURE

  • Change it regularly—once every three to six months.
  • Change it if you have the slightest suspicion that the password has become known by a human or a machine.
  • Avoid typing it on computers that you do not trust; for example, in an Internet café.
  • Never save it for a web form on a computer that you do not control or that is used by more than one person.
  • Never tell it to anyone.
  • Never write it down.

TIPS FOR CREATING A STRONG PASSWORD

  • Think of a word or phrase, and then substitute the letters with numbers and special characters and mix the case. For example,
    • Snoopy and Woodstock becomes Sno0py&ws
    • In the dog house becomes !nTh3dawgHs
    • Let’s have dinner at 8:00 p.m. becomes Lhd@800pm
  • Think of a word and a number, then intermix them and mix the case. For example, your elementary school name (Main Street Elementary) and your pet’s birth month and year (12/96) becomes m1A2/i9n6

MULTI-FACTOR AUTHENTICATION

Where available, OIT strongly recommends the use of multi-factor authentication (MFA). MFA requires a 2nd element – usually a pin code sent via text or a special mobile app – for login. Many popular services including Google, Amazon and Twitter support multi-factor authentication. Our new Application Portal supports MFA as well.

If you ever receive a request for or notification of an MFA 2nd element without your knowledge, immediately change the password for that service. Such a request or notification indicates someone is trying to access your account, and already has the password.


PASSWORD MANAGERS

Using a service to manage your passwords and remember login credentials provides an easy way to incorporate the use of strong, unique passwords. There are many password managers in the marketplace such as LastPass and LogMeOnce.  While it is not institutionally we required, we highly recommend the use of one. Remembering a long list of strong, unique passwords is not an easy feat. Password managers are a great tool for encrypting your login credentials in a secure location.