GCHQ wants to set your passwords. In a good way

Enough already with the strength meters and frequent changes says security agency


Britain's spy agency the GCHQ has changed its password security guidance in a new document offering sensible advice that, if followed, should harden systems and make life easier for admins and users.

The guidance advocates a ban on password strength meters, mandatory resets, and predictable combinations, instead encouraging brute force rate limiting and reduced access controls.

The advice is not for the likes of GCHQ itself who should maintain their own air-gapped faraday cages security systems according to risk appetite.

The guide covers the obvious such as how passwords can be cracked and the need to change from pre-installed defaults, but also offers solid advice that admins should only dole out passwords where they are required and allowing the use of password storage lockers.

GCHQ security director general Ciaran Martin outlines the password thought leadership in a report (PDF).

"Every single user in the UK public sector has at least one, and most likely considerably more, work-related passwords," Martin says.

"By simplifying your organisation's approach, you can reduce the workload on users, lessen the support burden on IT departments, and combat the false sense of security that unnecessarily complex passwords can encourage."

The report busts old and damaging myths too; kill the horrible mandatory password reset and instead force changes only in the event of a possible security breach.

Much of the advice is found in research covered by Microsoft here and here, and by Google here.

It does not cover some of Redmond's controversial advice that passwords should be reused across non-sensitive don't-care-if-it's-hacked sites.

However GCHQ agrees that passwords should not be subject to regular changes. This is because users who start off with a strong password will end up with a simple one due to the frustration of trying to remember it.

It also says password strength meters ought to be consigned to the bin, replaced with a blacklist of predictable passwords and some brute force throttling limited to 10 guesses.

Password managers are helpful but are a risk, the document says, since the security of a password is tied to its container and encryption used.

The document continues; do not share passwords, ever. It is such a crime that it should not even be broken in the event of an "emergency" requiring access to medical records, and instead an RFID tag or a token should be used to obtain temporary access.

The G Men subscribe to the church of XKCD, advocating the use of that comic's sometimes divisive Horse Battery Staple format of random yet easy to remember passwords over those requiring a mix of upper and lower case letters, and numbers.

Admins should offer users a scheme that offers memorable combination possibilities. Those would include words of the Consonant Consonant Vowel Consonant construction.

Access rights are critical. Admin accounts are not a plaything used for Youtube, but something to be used sparingly. System admins and other remote users must be burdened with high levels of security, including unique logins, two factor authentication, and "absolutely no default passwords".

Cleartext passwords are heresy. Such things must be regularly sought out and crushed, replaced with salted hashing. The preferred cryptographic function here is SHA 256 and PBKDF2.

Outsourcers must sign a contract to promise they will protect passwords and adhere to the policies, the document concludes. ®


Keep Reading

Tech Resources

The State of Application Security 2020

Forrester analyzed the state of application security in 2020 and found over 75% of external attacks are attributed to web application and software exploits.

How backup modernization changes the ransomware game

If the thrill of backing up your data and wondering if you will ever see it again has worn off, start the new year by getting rid of the lingering pain of legacy backup. Bipul Sinha, CEO of the Cloud Data Management Company, Rubrik, and Miguel Zatarain, Director of Global Infrastructure Technology at PACCAR, Fortune 500 manufacturer of trucks and Rubrik customer, are talking to the Reg’s Tim Phillips about how to eliminate the costly, slow and spotty performance of legacy backup, and how to modernize your implementation in 2021 to make your business more resilient.

Webcast Slide Deck | Three reasons you need a hybrid multicloud

Businesses need their IT teams to operate applications and data in a hybrid environment spanning on-premises private and public clouds. But this poses many challenges, such as managing complex networking, re-architecting applications for the cloud, and managing multiple infrastructure silos. There is a pressing need for a single platform that addresses these challenges - a hybrid multicloud built for the digital innovation era. Just this Regcast to find out: Why hybrid multicloud is the ideal path to accelerate cloud migration.

Anatomy of a Private Cloud

Learn the key elements that combined, build a true Private Cloud

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021