Why CIOs need to focus on password exposure, not expiration

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The cybersecurity market is growing even in the midst of the pandemic-driven economic downturn, with spending predicted to reach $123 billion by the end of the year. While disruptive technologies are undoubtedly behind much of this market growth, companies cannot afford to overlook security basics.

focus on password exposure

Biometrics may be a media darling, but the truth is that passwords will remain the primary authentication mechanism for the foreseeable future. But while passwords may not be a cutting-edge security innovation, that’s not to suggest that CIOs don’t need to modernize their approach to password management.

Mandatory password resets

Employees’ poor password management practices are well-documented, with Google finding that 65% of people use the same password for multiple, if not all, online accounts. To circumvent the security risks associated with this behavior, companies have historically focused on periodic password resets. Seventy-seven percent of IT departments surveyed by Forrester in 2016 were expiring passwords for all staff on a quarterly basis.

This approach made sense in the early days of the digital age, when employees typically only had a handful of passwords to remember. I’d argue that times had already changed by 2016, but we are certainly in an entirely different landscape today. As digital transformation accelerates and employees are faced with managing multiple passwords for all of their accounts, it’s simply no longer realistic or wise to force frequent password resets.

It’s time to retire password expiration

Both NIST and Microsoft have recently come out against forced periodic password resets for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Password expiration eats up significant resources and budget. According to Forrester, a single password reset costs $70 of help desk labor. When you multiply this by the average number of employees in a typical organization, it’s easy to see how password expiration can become an unwieldy expense and add significant pressure on overburdened IT teams.
  • It encourages poor cybersecurity practices. When users are frequently asked to change passwords they typically create weaker ones—for example, slight variants of the original password or the same root word or phrase with different special characters for each account.
  • The practice impedes efficiency and introduces friction. Forced resets have a negative impact on productivity as employees often struggle to remember their passwords. One recent study found that 78% of people had to reset a password they forgot in the past 90 days, eating up valuable time that could have better been deployed elsewhere. In addition, the frustration associated with frequent changes can cause employees to seek a workaround or engage in poor security practices like sharing passwords among colleagues or reusing personal passwords for corporate accounts.

Exposure, not expiration

The fundamental purpose of passwords is to ensure that no one but the authorized user has access to the account or system in question. As such, it follows that password security has evolved from a focus on expiration to a focus on exposure. If credentials are secure, there is no reason for companies to incur the cost and other issues associated with forcing a reset. It’s critical that CIOs adopt this mindset and evaluate how they can continuously screen passwords to ensure their integrity.

Putting NIST’s recommendations into practice

According to NIST, companies should compare passwords “ …against a list that contains values known to be commonly-used, expected or compromised… The list MAY include, but is not limited to:

  • Passwords obtained from previous breach corpuses
  • Dictionary words
  • Repetitive or sequential characters
  • Context-specific words, such as the name of the service, the username, and derivatives thereof.”

Given that multiple data breaches occur in virtually every sector on a daily basis, companies need a dynamic, automated solution that can cross-reference proposed passwords against known breach data. In this environment, it’s highly likely that a password could be secure at its creation but become compromised down the road. As such, CIOs also need to monitor password security on a daily basis and take steps to protect sensitive information if a compromise is detected.

Depending on the nature of the account and the employee’s privilege this could take a variety of forms, including:

  • Stepping up MFA or additional authentication mechanisms
  • Forcing a password reset
  • Temporarily suspending access to the account

Because these actions occur only if a compromise has been detected, this modern approach to credential screening eliminates the unnecessary cost and friction associated with password expiration.

Protecting the password layer in the new normal

Replacing password expiration with password exposure will be particularly critical as CIOs manage an increasingly hybrid workforce. With Gartner finding that 74% of organizations plan to shift some employees to permanent remote work positions, it’s likely that users will be creating new digital accounts and accessing different services online.

A modern password management approach that continuously screens for any credential compromise is the best way that organizations can secure this complex environment while simultaneously encouraging productivity and reducing help desk costs.

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October 5, 2020