A heresy about memorable passwords

April 20, 2014

In the wake of Heartbleed, we've been writing some password guidelines at work. A large part of the discussion in them is about how to create memorable passwords. In the process of all of this, I realized that I have a heresy about memorable passwords. I'll put this way:

Memorability is unimportant for any password you use all the time, because you're going to memorize it no matter what it is.

I will tell you a secret: I don't know what my Unix passwords are. Oh, I can type them and I do so often, but I don't know exactly what they are any more. If for some reason I had to recover what one of them was in order to write it out, the fastest way to do so would be to sit down in front of a computer and type it in. Give me just a pen and paper and I'm not sure I could actually do it. My fingers and reflexes know them far better better than my conscious mind.

If you pick a new password based purely at random with absolutely no scheme involved, you'll probably have to write it down on a piece of paper and keep referring to that piece of paper for a while, perhaps a week or so. After the week I'm pretty confidant that you'll be able to shred the piece of paper without any risk at all, except perhaps if you go on vacation for a month and have it fall out of your mind. Even then I wouldn't be surprised if you could type it by reflex when you come back. The truth is that people are very good at pushing repetitive things down into reflex actions, things that we do automatically without much conscious thought. My guess is that short, simple things can remain in conscious memory (this is at least my experience with some things I deal with); longer and more complex things, like a ten character password that involves your hands flying all over the keyboard, those go down into reflexes.

Thus, where memorable passwords really matter is not passwords you use frequently but passwords you use infrequently (and which you're not so worried about that you've seared into your mind anyways).

(Of course, in the real world people may not type their important passwords very often. I try not to think about that very often.)

PS: This neglects threat models entirely, which is a giant morass. But for what it's worth I think we still need to worry about password guessing attacks and so reasonably complex passwords are worth it.

Written on 20 April 2014.
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Last modified: Sun Apr 20 02:11:26 2014
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