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How to Implement a Robust Password Policy

Cybersecurity is everyone’s responsibility, and part of this is implementing the best password policy possible 

As threat vectors become increasingly more sophisticated, it’s incumbent on CISOs, CTOs, and cybersecurity practitioners to maintain a vigilant, proactive stance. It’s also incumbent on everyone in an organization to take responsibility for cybersecurity and to know and practice strong password management. Even the most advanced security measures can be rendered ineffective without a robust password policy. While nothing is foolproof, and every company must be responsible for its own practices, here are a few simple tips on the road to creating and implementing a robust password policy to enhance an organization’s security posture.  

The Anatomy of a Strong Password Policy  

A robust password policy is part of the foundations of any effective cybersecurity strategy, and it traditionally has three fundamental components:  

  1. Complexity: Passwords should contain a mix of upper and lower-case letters, numbers, and special characters to make them harder to crack.
  2. Length: The longer the password, the better. As a rule of thumb, passwords should be at least 12 characters long.
  3. Unpredictability: Passwords should be unique and not easily guessable, avoiding common phrases, repeated characters, or sequential strings.  

Setting the Stage: The Need for a Password Policy 

Back in the late 90s I worked for a household name where every PC in the building was “Password1 with a capital P.” Such things are now, thankfully, unthinkable, though even today the list of most common passwords makes for terrifying reading.  

According to Verizon’s Data Breach Investigations Report, 81% of hacking-related breaches involved weak or stolen passwords. With such an alarming figure, the argument for a robust password policy is undeniable. Password policies aren’t merely a protective measure, they’re a necessity in the modern digital era. 

Mitigating Insider Risk 

Insider threats – whether intentional or accidental – pose a significant risk to an organization’s cybersecurity. A well-implemented password policy is a critical component in mitigating these risks, and is recommended to support a zero trust framework.

A solid password policy: 

  • Limits Unauthorized Access: Insiders may attempt to use someone else’s account to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data. A strict password policy that demands complex, unique passwords makes it significantly harder for insiders to guess other employees’ passwords. 
  • Discourages Sharing of Credentials: If a strong password policy is in place and enforced, employees will be less likely to share their login credentials with coworkers. Shared passwords can make tracking who is responsible for a specific action challenging.  
  • Reduces Risk of Accidental Exposure: Requiring frequent password changes reduces the risk of passwords being accidentally exposed, for example, by someone leaving a written password in a visible place.
  • Thwarts Brute-Force Attacks: Implementing account lockouts after a certain number of failed login attempts deters insiders from attempting brute force attacks.  
  • Controls Privileged Access: Enforcing unique, complex passwords for privileged accounts ensures that only authorized individuals can access sensitive systems and data. This reduces the chance of an insider intentionally causing damage.  
  • Encourages Better User Behavior: Regularly educating employees about the importance of strong password practices as a part of the password policy can improve their cybersecurity hygiene, reducing the likelihood of accidental breaches.  

While a password policy alone can’t eliminate insider threats, it serves as an extra line of defense. It forms an integral part of a multi-faceted approach to managing insider risk, working in tandem with other measures such as access controls, user behavior analytics, and a culture of security awareness. 

Blueprint for Implementation: Best Practices  

Implementing a robust password policy demands a careful, methodical approach. Here are some suggestions to roll out something effective, company-wide:  

  1. Establish a Policy Framework: Start by defining what constitutes a secure password in your organization.
    Ensure a minimum password length of 12 characters.
    Demand complexity (mix of characters, numbers, and symbols).
    Discourage password repetition across different platforms.
    Mandate password changes at regular intervals, without reusing old passwords.
  2. Employ Two-Factor Authentication (2FA): This adds an extra layer of security by requiring users to provide two forms of identification before gaining access.
  3. Consider Leveraging Password Management Tools: It is possible to automate password creation and storage with tools like LastPass – on a personal level, I’m a big fan of 1Password. They can generate complex passwords and securely store them, reducing the risk of human error and ‘option paralysis in creation. 
  4. Implement Account Lockouts: After a certain number of failed login attempts, temporarily or permanently lock out the account to prevent brute force attacks.
  5. Offer Regular Employee Training: Equip your employees with knowledge on good password hygiene. Training should emphasize the importance of strong passwords and the potential ramifications of poor password practices.
  6. Continual Policy Review: Cyber threats evolve constantly. Regularly reviewing and updating your password policy ensures it remains in step with emerging threats and new technologies. 

Remembering the Unmemorable  

Overcomplication can lead to simplification if you are asking colleagues to remember passwords, and if they have to remember something unmemorable, you don’t want them to resort to writing it down.

Team members can be motivated to formulate a distinct, easy-to-remember passphrase or acronym as the foundation of their unique passwords. Incorporating deliberate misspellings, employing acronyms, and abbreviations, and substituting specific letters with numbers are clever strategies to induce users to add more uniqueness to their passwords. We can also encourage our workforce to establish a personal system, such as consistently replacing certain letters with their own unique symbols or digits, or entirely excluding certain letters within an easily recalled phrase. 

For example, one person might substitute As for 4s, Zs for 2s, Bs for 8s, Hs for #, Es for -, and Os for 0s, then put an ampersand on the end and an exclamation at the beginning of every password, making a random memorable and personal name or phrase like ‘Zaphod Beeblebrox’ into ‘!24ph0d8—8l-8r0x@’. 

They can take their own unique formulae with them, from password renewal to password renewal, giving them consistency without compromising safety.

Beyond the Password 

While passwords remain a critical element of cybersecurity, the future may well move towards biometric authentication and behavioral analytics. Even so, the principles of a robust password policy will still apply, helping to ensure that only authorized users gain access to sensitive company data.  

Implementing a robust password policy is not a trivial task. It requires a comprehensive understanding of potential threats, strategic planning, and diligent execution. However, the effort is worth it, protecting your organization against a significant portion of cyber threats. As CISOs, CTOs, and cybersecurity practitioners, it’s our role to advocate for and implement these proactive measures to secure our digital future. 

Please be advised that every company is responsible for its own password policy, and the suggestions above are only loose guidelines toward best security practices. 

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