Password ban makes sense

ZARA BAXTER
Last updated 05:00 12/12/2012

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OPINION: IS YOUR PASSWORD ON THE FORBIDDEN LIST?

Research in Motion, which makes the BlackBerry line of smartphones, has 106 passwords which can't be used to sign into its BlackBerry 10 operating system. Making their way onto the prohibited lists are passwords that are very easily guessable, such as "password" and "123456", which makes the BlackBerry decision seem eminently sensible.

You may think nobody uses hackneyed and easily guessable passwords any more, but you'd be wrong. According to Splashdata's survey of this year's most commonly used passwords, the two above are the two most popular passwords used, with "abc123", "qwerty" and "letmein" joining them in the top 10. Exactly the same kind of result is found when hackers make off with thousands of passwords - those most commonly used include those listed above.

There's an argument to be made that passwords aren't enough any more, after a tech-savvy journalist found his Gmail, Apple ID and Twitter accounts all compromised within an hour, despite his using strong passwords. In that case, a little knowledge about the person helped the hackers to acquire one password, which then gave them information - such as some credit-card digits - that could be used to access all his other accounts, one by one via helplines and password resets. It's scary how simple it is to entirely take over someone's online life if a concerted effort is made by someone with malicious intent.

PC World recommends you use two-factor authentication, where it's available - that is, having an offline code or token that must be used in combination with your online password to grant access. Gmail, for example, lets you use an SMS to your phone as a cross-check before login as a way to ensure your account is secure.

Where two-factor authentication isn't available, good passwords are essential. How do you make one?

A strong password contains letters, numbers, symbols, and is as long as possible - 10 or 12 characters or longer is far better than six or eight. Don't use plain English words. One method I use is to create phrases, which can then be turned into a sort of shorthand for a password. It makes them easier to remember, but harder to crack.

It's also good practice to use a separate password for each account that contains sensitive information about you: bank accounts, your email address, Facebook, AppleID. That way, if someone acquires the password for one, they don't have access to everything.

If you have trouble remembering passwords, software can help. We recommend a few products, including LastPass, 1Password, RoboForm and KeePass.

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MINE YOUR OWN MONEY

You may not have heard of Bitcoin: it's a form of money that you create using your computer. I don't mean in a "make money fast" kind of way, either. Instead, Bitcoins are generated by computer processing power.

If you sign up to mine Bitcoins, then when your computer isn't busy doing your regular work and hobbies, it can be used to solve a complex problem, and bitcoins are issued linked to how much work is done, in a predictable way. The problem gets more or less difficult depending on how many miners there are, and the system is intended to always be profitable for miners.

Alternatively, you can swap regular money for Bitcoins at a Bitcoin exchange - there are several around the world. And now, it appears that France will be allowing the French Bitcoin exchange to register with it's banking authority as a financial institution. Is that worthwhile? Apparently, Bitcoins is the most popular form of alternative currency - bigger than Bartercard - and a Bitcoin is worth about US$12 right now.

Some companies even accept Bitcoins in payment: WordPress announced in November that it now accepts Bitcoins for its blogging system software.

But it's also been accused of being a Ponzi scheme because of the way that the coins are mined: those who started out early earned thousands of coins for the same amount of work that may net you 50 coins now. You've got a few more years to try and mine your fortune, though - Bitcoins are designed to run out, in 2016 - or at 100 million coins in total. You can get started at bitcoin.org.

Zara Baxter edits New Zealand PC World and has reviewed gadgets for 15 years.

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