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It Is Time to Drastically Rethink Password Management in Healthcare? Some Might Say So

September 6, 2016
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It was intriguing to read an op-ed article in InfoWorld this summer, in which its author suggested that business organization leaders rethink their password management policies and practices

It was very intriguing to read an op-ed article that appeared in InfoWorld in June. Written by Roger A. Grimes, under the headline “The days of long complicated passwords are over,” it brings up some of the most current thinking around password use and protection within organizations and information networks. Among other things, Grimes challenges his readers’ assumptions about the usefulness of passwords, or at least of passwords alone, as a protective mechanism for networks, saying that, while “Traditional password recommendations, as implemented by most companies, typically call for passwords at least eight to 12 characters long, complexity that includes at least three different character sets (letters, uppercase, lowercase, numbers, symbols, and so on), and the stipulation that passwords should be changed at least every 90 days,” the emerging reality is that password complexity, or lack of it, is no longer a significant issue, in his view. Instead, he notes that, “[O]ver the last decade, hackers have changed the way they attack passwords. Back in the day, most password attackers literally guessed at user’s passwords. They found an externally accessibly portal where they could guess using manual or automated methods -- or they found the password hash and used rainbow tables to convert passwords back to the plaintext equivalents.”

Indeed, Grimes tells the readers of InfoWorld, “Today, almost all password attacks are one of two types. Users are either socially engineered (phished) out of their password, or the attacker steals their hash and uses it during other authentication attempts. In both scenarios, long and complex passwords offer little protection. Yes, some attackers and malware still try to guess passwords, but they're now in the minority.” Instead, he says, “New password attack methods require new policies.”

Here is a summary of Grimes’s recommendations:

1.       Keep passwords for end-users to 8 to 12 characters—requiring more inevitably leads to end-users coming up with passwords that are unnecessarily complicated and difficult to remember. In fact, he says, “You can add complexity requirements, but it doesn’t increase protection by much anymore.”

2.       Further, he says, organizations should change their policies that require end-users to change their passwords an average of every 45 to 90 days, instead to spans of 120 to 180 days. Indeed, he says, “I’ve seen a few companies push forced password changes to one year without any increase in password hacking issues. That said,” he adds, “I still think highly privileged accounts should have their passwords changed very frequently, perhaps as often as once per day or once per use. It virtually assures you’ll need additional software to accomplish this, but since those accounts are the ones attackers target, it makes sense.”

3.       On the other hand, Grimes urges his readers to establish a rule that the end-users in their organization cannot use the same password anywhere else—a requirement that he admits is essentially impossible to enforce.  “This recommendation is huge—and hard to enforce,” he writes. “When you reuse passwords across security domains, websites, or various services, you increase your hacking risk exponentially. Many big, recent hacks have occurred due to password reuse.” Further, he adds, “Many companies even download (or subscribe to a commercial service that downloads) illegally obtained website password databases to see if their employees' passwords are located in them. If so, the employee gets a warning –and may even get fired.”

4.       Finally, Grimes urges his IT executive readers to move towards multi-factorial authentication. “I’m particularly enthusiastic about the recommendation to implement risk-based, multifactor authentication challenges. It makes sense that higher-risk scenarios should require greater authentication assurance. For instance,” he says, “if you log into your email account from your normal computer from your normal location, it may even be OK to allow some sort of auto logon using a stored, simple password. But if you try to log on to the same email account from a new computer in a new country, you need stronger measures. Hotmail works this way for me right now: I use a simple password on my own computer at home, but if I log on to the same account from a new hotel, I need to enter a PIN sent via text to my phone. Microsoft’s risk-rating mechanism is even smart enough to recognize that I’m a frequent traveler, so I don’t get asked for the second-factor PIN all the time now -- only when I’m in high-risk areas or if I’ve traveled very far, very quickly from my last logon location.”

OK, so, per #3 above, I doubt that many CISOs at patient care organizations would—or should—subscribe to commercial services that scan password databases whose scans were illegally obtained, to see whether their staff members’ passwords are in them. But, setting that rather extreme thought aside, do Grimes’s recommendations make sense in healthcare?