Password Protection: How to Create Strong Passwords

By Eric Griffith Published Date
03 - Dec - 2011
| Last Updated
03 - Dec - 2011
Password Protection: How to Create Strong Passwords

Every password you have is important. Every one. Here's how to make your passwords uncrackable.

We live in a password-driven world, where between four and 20 characters are the difference makers in whether you're able to access your data, communicate with friends, or make your online purchases. The problem is that passwords should be different everywhere you use them, and that can make it difficult to remember them all. And, if a password is truly strong, that makes it even more difficult. That's why we've put together this helpful password guide. Follow these tips and tricks to take total control of your terms for access.

Common Problems with Passwords

Use Different Passwords Everywhere
Why would you do this when it's so easy to just type "fido" at every password prompt? Here's why: If "fido" gets cracked once, it means the person with that info now has access to all of your online accounts. A study by BitDefender showed that 75 percent of people use their e-mail password for Facebook, as well. If that's also your Amazon or PayPal password and it's discovered, say good-bye to some funds, if not friends.

Remember the Underwear Meme
The saying goes like this: Passwords are like underwear. You should change them often (okay, maybe not every day). Don't share them. Don't leave them out for others to see (no sticky notes!). Oh, and they should be sexy. Wait, sorry, I mean they should be mysterious. In other words, make your password a total mystery to others.

You can make your password sexy if you really want, however. I won't judge.

Avoid Common Passwords
If the word you use can be found in the dictionary, it's not a strong password. If you use numbers or letters in the order they appear on the keyboard ("1234" or "qwerty"), it's not a strong password. If it's the name of your relatives, your kids, or your pet, favorite team, or city of your birth, guess what—it's not a strong password. If it's your birthday, anniversary, date of graduation, even your car license plate number, it's not a strong password. It doesn't matter if you follow this with another number. These are all things hackers would try first. They write programs to check these kinds of passwords first, in fact.

Other terms to avoid: "god," "money," "love," "monkey," "letmein," and for the love of all that's techie, if you use "password" as your password, just sign off the Internet right now.








Strong Password Solutions

How to Build Strength
To create a strong password, you should use a string of text that mixes numbers, letters that are both lowercase and uppercase, and special characters. It should be eight characters, preferably many more. A lot more. The characters should be random, and not follow from words, alphabetically, or from your keyboard layout.

So how do you make such a password?

1) Spell a word backwards. (Example: Turn "New York" into "kroywen.")

2) Use l33t speak: Substitute numbers for certain letters. (Example: Turn "kroywen" into "kr0yw3n.")

3) Randomly throw in some capital letters. (Example: Turn "kr0yw3n" into "Kr0yw3n.")

4) Don't forget the special character. (Example: Turn "Kr0yw3n" into "Kr0yw3^.")


You don't have to go for the obvious and use "0" for "o," or "@" for "a," or "3" for "e," either. As long as your replacement makes sense to you, that's all that matters. A "^" for an "n" makes sense to me.

Other Tips
Choose something simple to remember as a password, but whenever you type it, put your fingers on the wrong keys—maybe one key to the left or right. Then a password like "kroywen" becomes "jeitqwb" or "ltpuerm." This is only going to work for non-perfectionist touch-typists. And skip this tip if you type passwords on your phone; you'll only sprain a thumb trying to be inaccurate instead of letting the inaccuracy flow naturally.

Another option is to pick a pattern on the keyboard and type based on that. For example, a counter-clockwise spin around the letter d could result in "rewsxcvf." Throw in some random caps and numbers to really lock it down.

Perhaps the easiest thing to remember is an acronym from a phrase of your choice. "We didn't start the fire, it was always burning" becomes "wdstfiwab" based on the first letters of each word.

Remember, the longer the password, the stronger it is. Always. Something more than 15 characters is very difficult to remember, but it'll be a breeze with a mnemonic.

Third-Party Passwords
If you don't trust yourself to create an unbreakable password, there are plenty of tools that will make one for you. The PC Tools Secure Password Generator, for example, makes one based on your criteria: how long, include (or don't) mixed case, numbers, punctuation, similar character replacement, etc. It even provides a phonetic pronunciation guide that you use as your mantra while typing the password, for example:

MA7ApUp# is MIKE - ALPHA - seven - ALPHA - papa - UNIFORM - papa – hash


Password Testing
If you're worried that your password of choice isn't strong enough, check it at How Secure is My Password?. The site will even tell you how long the average PC would take to crack it. For example, cracking "kroywen" would take 13 minutes, "kr0yw3n" would take about 2 hours, "Kr0yw3^" 15 days, and "MA7ApUp#" about 3 years.

You can tell from these results that mixing capital and small letters are better for strength and more characters (eight instead of seven) also make a huge difference. Adding a single capital letter to the end of "Kr0yw3^," such as "Kr0yw3nZ," boosts the crack time to 3 years. Throw another special character in ("Kr0yw3^Z!") and it jumps to 237 years.





Password Tracking and Changes

It's easy for me to say that you should use a strong password and then expect you to remember that messy non-word string of characters. But how dare I suggest you use a different password on every site you visit and account you own. That's madness!

Or is it? Here's a simple trick that would make your already steroid-strong password even more muscular, while individualizing it for each entry. Simply take the first three letters of the site or service you're entering and append them to the beginning or end of your strong password. On Amazon, you'd have "Kr0yw3^AMA." Your e-mail could be "Kr0yw3^EMA." Facebook would be "Kr0yw3^FAC." Notice I always use all caps for the appended letters, just to crank up the security. This can work for banks, shopping, social networks, you name it. It's like creating a thousand passwords you can remember easily.

Every few months, you should change all of your passwords—everywhere. Even if you made a password that would take a few centuries to hack, you might have shared it with a co-worker or boyfriend or girlfriend, right? What happens when they become ex-coworkers or an ex-BF or ex-GF? Yeah, you can probably guess.

You could change your base ("Kr0yw3^"), which might be easy if you based it on an acronym for a longer phrase. Or you could change the appended letters by moving them to the front or even the middle ("Kr0yFACw3^" for Facebook). Perhaps switch to the last three in the service name ("OOK" for Facebook.) You could even stick in the date of the change. It's your call.

You'll be most annoyed when you encounter that select few sites that only let you have a short password of four, six, or even eight characters. What might have seemed easy before is going to soon becoming a vexing problem when you embrace the might of a strong personal password paradigm.

The Right Advice is Wrong
Some experts will tell you to do a couple of things that go against conventional password wisdom. And the reasons are simple: productivity.

For example, I read a treatise on why you should write down your passwords, especially if you actually go the distance and use a unique string of characters for every log in. The amount of time you could lose trying to remember each password whenever you have to type it in may not be worth it. Just try to keep the list somewhere that's not readily accessible, such as in your wallet. A desk drawer at work is not optimal for keeping out snooping co-workers.

Related advice from a Microsoft researcher says that having multiple passwords is also not worth the effort. Or, more specifically, the indirect costs of the effort of tracking them all. That's right, that big list of passwords I just said to put in your pocket? Maybe it's not worth it.

Of course, all such worries are moot if you follow the advice above and create super-seekrit-strong passwords that you can easily remember.

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