Ensuring Good Passwords: Reward or Restrict?

We’re currently in the designing phase of a password rule configuration form. At first this sounded easy, but after a couple of discussions it turned out that the whole password strength and rule configuration topic is a pretty delicate one once you start digging deeper and questioning what you originally have thought was unquestionable.

The basic question here is „What does a good password make?“ where good actually means strong. The other question is „How can we get users to choose good (i.e. strong) passwords?“ – and that’s where the trouble starts.

The problem is that there’s a lot of tension when it comes to getting users to choose good passwords. There’s tension that you might never resolve and just have to find a compromise and there’s tension as a result of a false sense of security and policies established around that sense.

An example for the first type of tension is one of the basic problems of good passwords: The stronger a password, the harder it is to remember. It would be great if everyone chose a 24-character totally random password and had a different password for each service and application they use, but that’s just not going to happen. So, we need to compromise on the strength of a password in order for people to be able to remember it.

Of course there are tools that help organize our passwords, but let’s stay real here – this is not something that for example my parents would use. If I were to install KeePass on my parents‘ computer and tell them to use 20-character randomly generated passwords from now on, my mother would stare at me blankly and tell me that she was doing just fine with her passwords.

Now there are two ways to go from here: I’d call them restriction or reward.

Restriction means defining password rules that users have to comply to. Minimum length, use of numbers, symbols and uppercase characters, and so on. I can also force users to change their passwords every two months and prevent them from using any of their old passwords.

Reward means rewarding users for choosing a good password. It’s a bit of an ‚attaboy‘-reward, but still. Whenever I sign up for a new service or change my password, I like to see the password validation bar go from red and weak to green and strong, telling me that, yes indeed, the password I chose is strong enough to protect my account sufficiently.

The problem with restriction is that it doesn’t guarantee good passwords. If you take the most common password rules, minimum length as well as required use of numbers, symbols and uppercase letters, you can still choose Admin,1 as your password and be good to go. Requiring users to change their password after a defined period doesn’t help either. The user who chose Admin,1 initially will just change the password to Admin,2 to satisfy the required password change.

A strong password doesn’t need symbols or numbers. It simply needs to be hard to guess. A good password is a random set of characters and that’s something that’s hard to put into configurable rules.

Restriction and reward don’t really contradict each other, but they’re different approaches of how to educate users to choose good passwords. There’s a difference between forcing users to adhere to a set of rules and rewarding them for making sensible choices. And there’s tension everywhere: How far can I go with configuring rules to enforce good passwords without seriously annoying users because none of their passwords are accepted? Huh?

As I said, there are a lot of questions here and I’m not done thinking about it.

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