I ran across an interesting password survey conducted by Kevin Haley at Symantec. About 450 people answered his 9 straightforward questions. When thought about a bit, some of the results are pretty interesting.

The first question asked about the number of passwords. 33% of all respondents said that they have 10 or fewer password-protected accounts (networks, websites, etc.). Mind you that these folks took an online survey. As best as I can tell, they had to login to participate in the survey, which is entirely appropriate, but that would mean that that was one of their passwords – right?! My point is that most people severely underestimate the number of password-protected accounts they have. I’ve mentioned it in earlier blogs – stop someone on the street and ask how many accounts someone has and you’ll get an answer like ‘just a few’, ’maybe 10, or so’, or some small number. But when you think about most people (not technology geeks), you quickly see that even a basic Internet user will easily have 10 accounts, and probably more. Average users will likely have 20, 30 and more. Think about your own password-protected accounts:

1 free webmail (yahoo, gmail, hotmail, etc.)

2 email from your service provider (aol, comcast, earthlink, …)

3 facebook or other social network, maybe multiple networks

4 work

5 Amazon and other online shopping sites

6 Travelocity and other travel sites

7 online subscriptions (newspapers, magazines, newsletters, …)

8 just about any online blog to which contributions are made

That’s not to mention banks, credit cards and other financial stuff like retirement and investment accounts, government sites, libraries and local services, airlines, as well as cell phone accounts, utilities, and so on. This is interesting because a result of this underestimation is likely to be that many people entirely misunderstand the threat to their data, which should be protected by their passwords. If there’s no threat, then you don’t need to manage anything – right!?

The response to question 6 flows from the first: if you don’t think there’s a lot to remember (i.e. that you have only a few passwords), then you’re bound to think you can do it all in your head. 60% of people responding said that their ‘memory’ was their method for remembering passwords. I’ll bet a dollar to a donut that these folks’ passwords aren’t the strongest on the block. Still, quite a few (7%) admitted to storing theirs on post-it notes next to the computer.

Questions 2 and 3 were about choosing passwords. Just over eighty percent (80%) indicated that they recycled or duplicated their password to some extent. This would seem to contradict the 71% of respondents who selected ‘strength’ as one of the most important factors when selecting a new password. I thought the 9% who selected passwords because they were ‘fun or interesting’ were at least a little more aware of what was going on. (In general, this isn’t a good attribute in a strong password.) This is a big aid in remembering your password, but that also creates the temptation to share it with others. And then there’s the risk that others also know that your cat’s name is ‘Precious’.

The detailed results of the survey are worthwhile and so is Kevin’s commentary.

The failure of passwords is because of human nature: we are driven to make things easy for ourselves. Good passwords require the opposite.

Peter L