In this internet infused world we live in today, it’s not uncommon for user to have to remember several username and password permutations (please note order of characters does matter and thus it’s a permutation not a combination). That being said there are three aspects of the user account design process that really grind my gears.
This aspect of user account design doesn’t seem to be talked about very often, but it is extremely important. Individuals need to take responsibility for the protection of their usernames and passwords. In fact most web based services clearly indicate as such in their User Level Agreement. That is to say, if someone gains access to your account by means of your username and password permutation, you are responsible for any and all damages. Users need to understand that they are already being held legally responsible for their login information and should take it upon themselves to protect it as if it were any other valuable piece of information.
I grew up online and have watched large web based service provides change their user account design practices over time. Although, most of these changes have greatly increased the general security of user accounts online, I’ve always wondered why changes were never made to user names. In fact usernames have remained almost constant in the online landscape for years. For some reason, early adopters of this authentication model decided that the username should be shared to represent a person online. I personally believe that it is important to have an online identity and that it’s your choice weather to divulge your physical identity alongside a virtual one. This should not require me to log into a web service with such an identity or handle. My username, that I use to log in, should not be public information. In fact I’m a firm believer that it should be treated as if it were a second password. After all, two things you known might not be 2 factors of authenticate, but it is two facts. Web based service provides need to allow users to create usernames that are just as advanced as their passwords. These usernames should not be made public and another method of virtual identity handling should be used. If nothing else, please please stop using email addresses for account login. Email addresses are used everywhere online and are widely known pieces of information and one need only go to the password recovery prompt to see if an email is indeed in use.
Password complexity is a double edged sword and I hope to make a far more technical and detailed posting about it in the near future. However password complexity, in my mind, has only come about as a method to force users into take more reasonability for their passwords. In a perfect world, a password of all lower case letters or all numbers would be just as difficult to decipher as a password that uses a range of characters. That is to say, if users were truly random in their character selections, the user who chose a password of 33784091 would be just as secure as the user who choose L(k&6hlY, because the available character space did not change. However users are not random and in fact are rather predictable. So our solution is to create a list of rules that a user must follow in order to use a service. This forces a user to create a password that is hopefully harder to guess and crack, but in my experience neither case really holds true. These rules restrict the user by reducing the useable character space and realm of possible passwords. These restrictions alongside the added pressure of maintain a secure posture, all but forces users to reuse old passwords and create ones from common phrases. This undo stress adds predictability to the equation and is at the root of the username and password problem. My solution is a simple one, use the same methodology that is commonplace for usernames. When a user sets or changes a password don’t let them use a password that someone else is already using. In the background, just add what every passwords your organization has deemed weak to the already in use list, just as many already do for usernames deemed inappropriate.