Defining Terms

Secure Passwords Not Allowed

For quite a while now, I’ve been using a tiered password system for all of the websites where I have accounts. I knew this was bad practice, but it was easy. Recently there have been a number of stories about websites’ databases being leaked, which made me seriously consider doing something better. Password managers have never impressed me much, both because of the security issues of storing all of your passwords in a central location and the danger of losing the database and not being able to reconstruct it. But, when I came across PasswordMaker, I liked what I saw.

Instead of storing the passwords, they’re generated on the fly using a cryptographically secure method. The software is all open source, so you know what’s going on and can reconstruct it if you need to. Finally, there’s also a very convenient browser plugin for Firefox that I can install everywhere. So, I finally bit the bullet and got away from my tiered password system by moving all of my online accounts to using passwords generated by PasswordMaker.

If I’m going to go through all of that trouble, I might as well use a secure password, right? So I decided to use passwords with letters, numbers, and punctuation. That shouldn’t be anything special, it’s just the standard recommendation for password security. Some systems even have that as a minimum requirement.

What surprised me was that a huge number of websites I use don’t allow passwords with punctuation, 20% in fact. Out of the 97 sites where I tried to update my account, 19 of them would not allow it. These ranged from hip web 2.0 sites like digg.com to big, corporate sites like geico.com. Here’s the full list:

So now I have to use a different set of characters for my passwords at these sites. Fortunately, PasswordMaker lets me configure different profiles for different sites, so I can set it up once and forget about it. But, why should I have to do that, especially when it makes my account less secure?

It seems like it just requires more work from the website makers to restrict certain characters, and I can’t think of any good reason to do so. It might make sense to restrict passwords to ASCII characters if their system doesn’t fully support Unicode. But disallowing all punctuation just doesn’t make any sense. The programmers might be worried about allowing escape characters in passwords, but it seems like it would be just as much work to protect the system against them internally as making an additional demand on the user.

If we’re going to expect users to have secure passwords, we need to allow them to do so. I’d like to see the above sites change their password policies, and I want any new sites to allow long, complex passwords.