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Enough With The Weak Passwords, Already

The most common passwords on the dark web are those users have been repeatedly warned away from. Can training help?

Those are still some of the most commonly found passwords leaked on the dark web by hackers, even after years of work by federal, state and local governments and businesses to educate users on the need for complex, hard-to-guess passwords.

Cybersecurity experts said that while governments and businesses can have all manner of software and policies designed to prevent breaches, still the most basic vulnerabilities like easy-to-guess passwords can pose the greatest threat.

“This is the equivalent of having really good cameras and high-tech technology and equipment inside your house but leaving all the windows and doors unlocked or even just gaping wide open,” said James Yeager, vice president of public sector and healthcare at CrowdStrike.

Experts have consistently warned of the risks of poor password management. In its Data Breach Investigations Report released earlier this year, Verizon found that the second most common threat is the use of stolen credentials, including passwords. Indeed, the report noted that it first mentioned instances of criminals leveraging weak passwords in 2013, and the problem has continued since then.

The problem of weak passwords is also acute among employees in state and local government, according to separate research. Just 48% of government and public sector respondents to EY’s Human Risk in Cybersecurity Survey released in October said they are very confident in their ability to use strong passwords at work.

The broader cybersecurity survey found that Gen Z and millennial employees are “significantly more likely” to use the same password for professional and personal accounts, something Tapan Shah, EY Americas’ consulting cybersecurity leader said in a statement should be a “wake-up call” for security officials.

“There is an immediate need for organizations to restructure their security strategy with human behavior at the core,” Shah said. “Human risk must be at the top of the security agenda, with a focus on understanding employee behaviors and then building proactive cybersecurity systems and a culture that educates, engages and rewards everyone in the enterprise.”

Observers said the best way to build good password habits is by training employees more rigorously as part of an organization’s overall cyber hygiene program. Chris Estes, EY’s US state, local & education market, finance, operations & technology leader, said that means governments must recognize that they are at risk and that their employees are a major risk vector.

“If you realize that you're vulnerable, then you'll start taking the actions that are necessary at the user level to help protect the organization,” he said.

Estes also urged governments to require employees to change their passwords regularly as part of an overall “action plan” that also includes ensuring devices have up to date software and cyber protections and encrypting data where possible. Those factors, he said, all contribute to “building that cyber culture.”

The Verizon report said that if employees receive more training on good cyber practices, that can “potentially help improve security behaviors” by encouraging them to use a password manager, multi-factor authentication or other tools. Researchers said it is better to get employees to change their habits than to rely on technology like artificial intelligence.

“Clearly the Human Element leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to information security,” the report said. “Even when a breach is not directly caused by a person, the information systems were still built by people. Frankly, we’d rather have people solving the problems since asking the AI to do it sounds much trickier.”

Meanwhile, federal officials are looking to support a future without passwords and instead make use of public-key cryptography, biometrics and authentication tokens.

While local governments may be years away from similar solutions, better training and management of passwords in the meantime is achievable, Yeager said. While governments can be diligent about software updates and patches to prevent attacks, he said it’s important to “get a better handle on the “basic stuff that’s sitting right in front of us.”

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