How easy is it for cyber criminals to get past weak passwords? How do they do that?
‘Brute force attacks’ are a common tactic used by cyber-criminals. These attacks use automated software to guess as many combinations as quickly as possible. Short passwords under 9-12 characters are particularly vulnerable to these attacks.
Another technique, known as the ‘dictionary attack’, is where a bad actor uses a prearranged list of words found in the dictionary. A weak password which includes a single common word is highly vulnerable to this type of attack, with multiple word phrases needed to outsmart it. It is also tempting to re-use the same passwords across accounts, but this should be avoided at all costs to prevent successful dictionary attacks.
Why are weak passwords so dangerous and costly for SMEs/start-ups?
Like any business SMEs have customers, and these customers will expect their partners to keep the sensitive information they share protected and secure. This could be financial data, acquisition plans or trade secrets - information that could threaten the entire operation of the business if it were leaked to the public or to competitors. Malicious logins could also disrupt systems and business operations and open up the threat of ransomware. So, given that passwords are more than likely the first line of defence for SMEs, a proper password management policy is essential.
What does a strong password look like?
The more complex a password, the stronger it is. Three key factors when developing a strong password include:
- Multiple word phrases: incorporating proper nouns, a foreign language, and phrases that can’t be linked back to you are the basis of a strong password
- Password length: for highly-secure credentials such as access to IT infrastructure 15 characters should be a minimum
- Complex Characters: adding random characters between words makes a password even stronger. Try to avoid easily guessable substitutions such as underscores replacing spaces or zero replacing “o”
What technology exists to help SMEs manage their passwords?
Passwords managers are useful, but another layer of security that SMEs should consider is two-factor authentication (2FA). This is the process whereby a code is sent to a mobile number or an email address associated with the user account. Adding an extra step in the login process reduces the chances of a breach and sensitive information being stolen. 2FA also acts as a warning sign if someone is trying to break in.
What role does education play? Is it important to keep staff up to date with cybersecurity issues, and to encourage regular reviews of procedure?
It’s fundamental. Cyberattacks are evolving in sophistication daily, and criminals are already abusing new technologies to launch aggressive attacks that can bypass threat detection systems. This is why a strong cybersecurity foundation and a culture that promotes training for employees is so important. A small business without protection that goes beyond antivirus to the devices and the networks they’re connected to, is far more likely to find itself on the receiving end of crippling sanctions, and economies could suffer as a result.