Make a hard-to-guess password that is easy to remember

Certainly not specific to creative agency workflow management, but something that we all struggle with on a daily basis. Passwords.

Did the sight of that word make you flinch?

Using good passwords is like getting regular exercise. We know we’re supposed to do it, but it’s hard to get excited about it. But good passwords are also like a good roof on your house. You’re better protected from the harsher ‘elements’ outside. (In this case, you’re better protected from bad guys who want to hack your email or even your bank account).

We all know we’re supposed to have hard-to-guess passwords.

Here’s a simple way to make a hard-to-guess password that is easy to remember.

First, Pick a 4 or 5 word phrase that you can easily remember. This can be a common phrase that others know, like “don’t have a cow man”, or something special only to you. You’ll know it’s a good phrase if you think you’ll be able to remember it after a few days or weeks.

Go ahead and write it down for now, and put it some place reasonably private, like your daytimer, your wallet or your purse.

Ok, now lets convert this new phrase into a short string of numbers. We can do this by counting the letters in each word:

  1. don’t (5 letters — we’ll count the apostrophe as a letter)
  2. have (4 letters)
  3. a (1 letter)
  4. cow (3 letters)
  5. man (3 letters)

When we put the letter counts together, “don’t have a cow man” translates to “54133”. The number your phrase generates is going to be a part of your new password.

You shouldn’t write this number down anywhere. You can go ahead and try to memorize it right now, but don’t worry if you can’t do it. That’s why you chose your phrase to be memorable, so that you can easily ‘recreate’ your number. If you think you are going to forget how you got your number from your phrase, go ahead and write ‘count the letters’ on the same piece of paper that has your phrase.

The thing to keep in mind is that you are only going to keep this piece of paper around until your new number is memorized, much the same way we write down our phone number until we have it memorized. Once you know your number, go ahead and tear up the paper and throw it away.

One last thing about this ‘number’ we just made up. Why not just use your birthday, or some other, easier-to-remember number? The answer is that while those numbers may be easy to remember, they are also easy to guess. That isn’t true of the number you just made up. This new number doesn’t have any simple connection to you, so it makes it harder to guess.

Ok, you have half of your password complete. Now on to the easy part!

Go ahead and pick a word you like: ‘blue’, ‘homer’, ‘bicycle’. This word should have at least 4 letters, and should be a word that is important enough to you that you will always be able to remember it. The name of your cat or your favourite colour are fine choices.

Let’s choose ‘blue’ for our example.

For the last step, mix the characters from our memorable word with the digits from the number we generated. Keep the characters and digits in the same order they appeared in the word and number, but alternate the characters and numbers in an easy to memorize way. Here are some examples:

  • 54bl133ue
  • bl54133ue

The most important thing is to split up the letters of the word. This way the new password can’t be ‘read’ as a word or phrase.

That’s all there is to it!

Now instead of having to remember a long, meaningless password, we just have to remember a number (that only has meaning to us), and our favourite ‘password’ word. We can even re-use our number in other passwords.

Here are some more tips that will make this ‘system’ of passwords even more secure:

Have several simple words that you use for your passwords. Combine them with your number to make different passwords for different accounts/logins.

  1. Change your ‘number’ (ie, pick a new memorable phrase) every 6 months (or even sooner), and update your existing passwords to use it. For instance, “bl54133ue” might become “bl23412ue”, because my new number is “23412”.
  2. Change the pattern you use to translate your phrase into a number. For example, count the vowels ‘a, e, i, o, u’ (in that order) and put the counts together as a number. Eg, “don’t have a cow” = 31020.
  3. Pick a longer phrase to get a longer number. 6 or 7 digits is harder to guess than 4 or 5.
  4. Put punctuation between the numbers and characters like this: “bl-54133-ue” or “”. This satisfies the common requirement that passwords have symbols in them (usually punctuation). As well, this can even make it easier to remember because the two parts, the number and word, are kind of kept separate.

That’s all for today. Have fun making new passwords! (Just joking. I hate password stuff too).

Trevor Cowley – Senior Software Engineer at Function Point

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