Right now you’re scrambling to change all your passwords. If you’re not, you should be. In the wake of a couple of massive security breaches—one at LinkedIn that nabbed 6.5 million passwords and another at eHarmony that compromised 1.5 million accounts—security experts are advising that people change their passwords at the affected sites and at every other site where you used a similar password. By now you’ve probably heard the time-worn guidelines for creating strong passwords: Don’t use your name or other common words. Use different passwords for different sites. Change them often. Choose security questions that don’t involve information that everyone knows about you, or stuff that crooks can easily find on Facebook.
For a lot of people, myself included, these rules are too much trouble. We’ve all got too many online accounts, so keeping track of different, ever-changing strong passwords for each site seems like a gargantuan task. The easiest way to fix this problem is to use password-managing software. I like LastPass, which generates and remembers passwords for all your sites across all your computers. (It’s free, but if you pay $1 a month for the premium version, you’ll get support for your mobile devices, too.) But for a lot of people—probably including you—even a password manager is too much trouble. Ignoring the guidelines, you pick a memorable password for all your sites, then just cross your fingers and hope for the best.
Well, I’ve got a better way. In 2009, I stumbled upon a foolproof system to fix all your terrible, vulnerable passwords in just five minutes. My method, which I filched from a commenter at a security forum—who says Web commenters are good for nothing?—generates very strong passwords that are also very easy to remember. This means that you can create good passwords for every site you visit.
But now I’ve got a better system. This new scheme generates even stronger passwords that are even easier to remember. The one disadvantage is that it doesn’t work at every site. For those places where it doesn’t work, you’ll have to use my 2009 method, which is still really good.
Enough preamble. Here we go.
The old, still very good way to fix your terrible passwords: Come up with a short phrase you’re likely to remember. Just like in school, it helps to make your mnemonic really bizarre—the stranger the phrase, the easier it’ll be to remember. For example, Kim Kardashian is the most amazing woman in all 50 states, or Mitt Romney and Barack Obama decided to make 10 waffles. Notice that my phrases use a mix of capitalized and lowercase words, and I added some numbers as well.
To make a password, just take the first letter of each word in your phrase. The sentences above would turn into KKitmawia50s and MRaBOdtm10w. Both of those passwords are extremely strong—they’re long, and they’re free of common English words that can be guessed by a computer.
You can generate different passwords for different sites by varying your phrase slightly for each one. The phrase LinkedIn is terrible at securing its passwords so it’s my 10th favorite social network will create a password for LinkedIn (LIitasipsim10fsn) as well as for Twitter (Titasipsim9fsn), Facebook, MySpace, and on and on.