How to Write Down Your Passwords and Not Worry About Someone Stealing Them

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I sometimes enjoy playing with codes and ciphers. In fact, a long time ago (eighth grade, 1966), I got my introduction to cryptography from a book aptly named Codes and Ciphers written by Alexander d’Agapeyeff. My friends and I had some good laughs getting caught passing encoded notes in class; the nun couldn’t decipher them. Being an Edgar Allen Poe fan, I was fascinated by his story “The Gold Bug,” which centers on the solution to a cipher that turns out to be a map to hidden pirate treasure. And then there’s that bit with Ralphie, the hero in the classic holiday hit movie, A Christmas Story, where he anxiously awaits the arrival of his “Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring.”

But I digress.

I know this isn’t a new concept by any means, but the application of simple cryptographic principles can allow you to generate passwords using patterns that you can safely write down. One of the key elements of authentication is “something only you know” and you can use this to generate secure passwords with simple substitution and transposition ciphers. (WARNING: playing around with this stuff can be habit-forming!)

Let’s take a simple example of a substitution cipher based on a date. This one uses two levels of secret “keys”: 1. a clue or mnemonic for the date; 2. an abstraction of the encoding algorithm. We’ll use Abe Lincoln’s birthday in numeric form–02/12/1809–for our plaintext, leaving out the slashes, i.e., 02121809, which will result in a strong, eight character password. Now, for the first key, we can use “BDAbe.” This immediately reveals the plaintext, but means little or nothing to anyone else. (NEVER use your own birthday, for obvious reasons.)

Next, we decide to use alternating shifted characters, beginning with the first character. So, for key two, we make an abstraction of that: %x#, for example. It doesn’t matter what characters you use, only that they clearly represent shifted and lower-case characters; you could just as easily use AyT or !2@. The pattern of shift-lowercase-shift on the keyboard is what matters to you; the characters mean nothing else. Put the two keys together and you have this: BDAbe%x#. That’s your cipher pattern, the “something only you know,” with an added level of complexity: it’s something only you know (the plaintext) and only you know what it means (the encoding pattern). Anyone who sees BDAbe%x# will have your keys, but it’s likely they won’t have a clue as to what to do with them. Write it down. Post it all over the place. Buy an ad in the newspaper. Tell everyone you know. Who cares? It isn’t your password and only you know what it means; but, it looks like a password and serves as an effective deception.

Finally, we generate the actual password using our cipher pattern of alternating shifted and lowercase characters, so 02121809 becomes our ciphertext of )2!2!8)9: eight characters, each having one of 96 possible choices. In a brute force attack, a modern PC, capable of guessing 10 million passwords per second, would take 23 years to go through all possible combinations of an eight-character password with a 96 character selection space. Not too shabby, eh?

For website logins where high security isn’t a concern, you can drop the “www.” and use the rest of the URL as your plaintext. In this case, you only need to write down the password length and encoding pattern. Let’s say I have a login on the site www.nytimes.com. I don’t care if someone reads the news using my password, so tight security isn’t a concern. I decide on a pattern of lowercase-shift-shift and decide to use a six-character password. The encoding pattern is x%^, so I can write that down as nytimes.com/x%^. Who’s going to know what that means? The password would be nYTiME. At only six characters and despite being based on the URL itself, that password is still relatively secure: it would take a hacker 33 minutes to crack your password; he’d be able to set up his own account in less than 2 minutes. And why would anyone want to crack your password? NYTimes.com doesn’t ask for any personal information other than your birth year and zip code, nothing that’s worth anything to a criminal hacker.

I encourage you to come up with your own method of applying this to your passwords, and of course, I welcome your comments and questions.

Cheers!
The Geek

Have a question? It can be about anything from cooking to science, whatever you’re interested in: Click here to Ask the Geek! Kenny “The Geek” Harthun has been playing with geeky stuff since 1965. He’s a former research scientist, currently works as a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer at Connective Computing, Inc. and loves to learn about anything and everything.

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