We regularly get asked at LDH about password managers: what they are, if people should use them, and which ones to use. While there is some consensus in the information security world about password managers, there is still some debate – if you ask three security experts about password managers, you will get at least five answers. Today we’ll add to the mix and answer the most frequently asked questions about password managers.
What is a password manager?
At its core, a password manager is a software application that generates, stores, and retrieves passwords and other login information for various accounts. These passwords are accessible through the manager via a master password or passphrase. Think of a password manager as a vault – the vault has your passwords and you gain access to the vault through a combination that you and only you know.
Should I use a password manager?
Yes! Password managers are a great way to help you secure your online accounts. Password managers do the remembering of (almost) all the passwords for you, so you can break the bad habits of reusing passwords for multiple accounts or using weaker passwords that you can remember from memory – both habits put you at higher risk of having your account compromised. Some password managers can automatically change your passwords for you, as well as the ability to generate stronger passwords for each of your accounts. Another benefit of password managers is that you can securely share passwords for family accounts with others in your family (as long as they too use a password manager).
The one password that you have to remember is the master password to get into your manager. To create a strong password that you are likely going to remember, I recommend creating a passphrase. You can generate a strong passphrase through Diceware.
Are they safe?
Safety usually comes up when someone asks about password managers, and for good reason. This is a software application that could potentially have information for your financial accounts, your social media accounts, your shopping accounts, your medical accounts, and so on, and if that application has a data breach or leak, you are at high risk for identity theft at best. There is the fact that some password managers have had breaches in the past, the most prominent one being LastPass. You might also have read news stories about how other password managers might be vulnerable to breaches.
Nonetheless, for most folks, the risks associated with the use of a password manager are far less than using weaker passwords or reusing passwords. This gets into your threat model – what are the most realistic risks in terms of who wants your data, why they want your data, and how they’ll get your data. This is a risk assessment where you not only need to consider the severity of if the risk is realized but also the likelihood that a risk will be realized. Yes, a password manager might be breached, but the likelihood of a well-known password manager being breached is lower than a breach of an account that uses a weaker password or a password that was used by another account that was part of another breach or leak.
[A gentle reminder that using a weak password or reusing a password for your master password for the password manager also puts you at the same level of risk as not using a password manager at all!]
If you’re still wary of using a password manager, there are a couple of strategies I’ve encountered from my discussions with others that can mitigate some risks, including using multiple password managers to store different types of passwords and other sensitive information, or only use their password manager to manage passwords, and not store any other information, like security question answers and payment information.
Which password manager do you recommend?
It depends on your needs.
Some people use their browsers to manage their passwords, but that limits users to the browser that they are using. To get the full benefit, I recommend using a password manager separate from an individual browser’s password vault.
In general, you want to use a password manager that:
- Uses strong encryption to store and to sync data in and between clients and apps
- Offers secure cross-platform compatibility (desktop, mobile device) for all the platforms that you use in your daily life
- Has an established reputation in the password manager world
The question of paid versus free accounts sometimes comes into the conversation. Several password managers have a free plan, while other password managers are free open source software. It depends on your needs and your comfort level when it comes to if you want to stick with a free plan/manager or move to a paid plan.
With all that said, here are some password managers to check out:
- Dashlane [Currently used at LDH!]
- LastPass [They cleaned up pretty well after their 2015 breach – read more about their security]
Are there alternative ways to store passwords outside a password manager?
There’s always this. ;c)
Special thanks to newsletter subscriber Chris Reimers and the folks in the ALA LITA/OIF webinar last week for the newsletter topic suggestion!
Recording now available for remote work and data privacy
If you missed last week’s “A Crash Course in Protecting Library Data While Working From Home”, don’t worry – we recorded the session! You can access the recording and transcript of of last week’s webinar in Google Drive. Resources and handouts for the webinar can be access at https://is.gd/LDH_RemotePrivacy.