The revelation of the “Collection #1” data breach highlights, once again, that we do a poor job of keeping ourselves safe online. January is a good time for setting personal goals and if I could recommend one goal for you, it would be to improve your online security. I’m not a security professional but my work involves online identity management and I find our community’s behaviours fascinating. This blog post contains free, unsolicited advice, so you are guaranteed value for money but do give it some consideration.

Get a Password Manager

Password Entry

First thing’s first… get yourself a password manager! No, really. I used LastPass for many years and found it sufficient but a couple of security issues gave me pause for thought. I recently switched to 1Password (the migration was very straightforward) and have been impressed with its slick user interfaces and its Watchtower functionality for highlighting where I may be vulnerable online.

I have literally hundreds of online accounts, many of which are years old and I have no idea how secure my credentials are with those services. I know from services such as Have I Been Pwned (HIBP) that some of these services have stored my credentials in plain text and those credentials have subsequently leaked, so I treat all online services with suspicion. Keeping track of all these accounts is only manageable with a password manager.

Use Strong, Unique, Memorable, Diceware Passphrases Locally

There are some places where password managers don’t work, such as unlocking your computer’s operating system and getting into your password manager. Since your online security is only as strong as the weakest link, these logins need to be strong enough to keep others out and memorable enough to let you in!

I’d like to see the word “Password” eradicated from all authentication setup scenarios as it encourages poor security choices. Passwords are guessable by other humans and are quickly found by computer algorithms. Where you see this word, read it as “pass phrase”.

The diceware method of creating a sequence of words makes for strong login credentials. To make these words memorable, compose an image in your head that joins the words together. The XKCD “correct horse battery staple” comic is a good illustration of this concept but please don’t use “correct horse battery staple” as your pass-phrase, it has already been breached!

Use Long, Unique, Random Passphrases Online

Your password manager doesn’t care for the legibility of your credentials, so turn up the strength of your “password” to the maximum. 1Password and LastPass offer generators that will do the heavy lifting for you.

Password Generation

Sometimes websites, even ones I’d expect to know better, such as those belonging to telecommunications companies will tell us that our generated passwords are “too long” or “contain invalid characters”. I’m pretty certain that these are storing our passwords in plain text and are therefore insecure. Which is the perfect segue to the next piece of advice.

Never Reuse Credentials

It’s safe to assume that your credentials from at least one online service will be leaked at some point in time. See HIBP, it probably has been already! When this happens, those credentials are likely be used in credential stuffing attacks. If an attacker gets hold of your credentials for, say, your favourite band’s online discussion forum it would be bad for them to impersonate you on that service but potentially far worse for them to impersonate you using the same credentials to log into your social media or email service.

Enable Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is not available everywhere but it is available on many major online services. The site Two Factor Auth (2FA) keeps a great list and provides us with ways to contact those who don’t yet offer 2FA.

I remember reading the real life horror story Hacked! in April 2012 and sitting up late that night enabling 2FA on a bunch of accounts. At the time I used the popular Google Authenticator application to manage my time-based one-time passwords (TOTP) but have since switched to using Authy, which makes moving from one mobile device to another much more convenient.

The only times I have ever found 2FA to be an inconvenience are those when my browser has crashed or Google has logged me out in the middle of a Hangout (or “Meet”).

I don’t consider SMS-based MFA to be secure due to the risk that SMS messages may be intercepted or redirected so prefer TOTP or Universal 2nd Factor (U2F) devices, where available. When presented with backup codes, keep these safe as you would your birth certificate, passport or driving licence.


Please keep strong, unique pass-phrases in a password manager and secure your email and social media accounts with 2FA.

Let me know how you go!