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Creating secure passwords you don't have to remember

It's easy to tell users to create strong passwords, but hard to get them to do it. And when they do, it's common to see them written on a sticky note attached to someone's monitor. So what's the answer? It might be an online application that promises to generate secure passwords that do not have to be committed to memory.

Are passwords doomed? The unanimous lament among security experts is how most people don't use strong passwords. They either use personally identifiable information or else horribly weak passwords that won't survive a dictionary attack. Furthermore, Microsoft is talking about allowing people to almost entirely do away with passwords in Internet Explorer 7.

It's a Catch-22 situation: People rarely use strong passwords because they are impossible to remember, and yet they've been told time and again never to write them down, which only makes them harder to memorize.

There's got to be a better way, you say. Well, to a degree, there already is. Programmer Chris Zarate has created an online password generator application that functions in a way I've never seen before. It actually works with a user's bad memory rather than against it.

The premise is simple. You supply a single master password -- it doesn't matter what it is, and it doesn't have to be secure -- and the application generates a bookmarklet that takes the domain name of the site you're visiting and creates a password to use in that domain by hashing it against your master password. The bookmarklet is not a program; it's simply a bookmark that, when selected, pops up a text window (via JavaScript) that contains the password to use for that domain.

Bookmarklets can be generated for Firefox and IE and are created via the secure MD5 algorithm, which makes them impossible to reverse-engineer. No information of any kind is transmitted to an outside server to create the bookmarklet or generate the password. You can also create a bookmarklet with the master password hard-coded into it (if you're reasonably certain you'll be the only one accessing the computer) or one that prompts you for the master password each time. The script can even automatically populate password fields in the current page as needed.

This is a creative and powerful solution to a problem that isn't going to go away soon.

Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the Windows Power Users Newsletter. Check it out for the latest advice and musings on the world of Windows network administrators -- and please share your thoughts as well!

This tip originally appeared on

This was last published in March 2006

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