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What Does Password Mean?

A password is a secret code or phrase used to authenticate a user and provide access to a system, device, or service. It is a form of authentication that confirms the user's identity and allows them to access protected information or resources. Traditionally it was expected that passwords would be memorized, but with the vast number of unique passwords needed today, having a way to easily recall or look up passwords has become essential.

Passwords are typically a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols that are chosen by the user to ensure the security of their accounts and sensitive information. They are commonly used for online accounts such as email, social media, banking, and other services that require authentication. Passwords are meant to be kept secret so that only authorized individuals can access whatever the password protects. 

Dissecting Password

Passwords have an ancient history, they were used in ancient times by sentries challenging those who would try to enter an area with a password or watchword, only allowing those who knew the word to enter. 

In more recent times, passwords were used in military operations and evolved to include a counter password during World War II. Passwords have been used since the early days of computers, and now usernames and passwords are used by individuals to log into various applications. A typical computer user has passwords for things like accessing devices, email, websites, paying bills, entertainment purposes, and any other application where keeping information private is essential. 

As passwords became more widespread for accessing networks, databases, and applications, their security became more important. In the early days, passwords were often stored in plaintext, making them vulnerable. Modern password storage systems encrypt passwords before storing them, ensuring only authenticated users can access secure systems or data by entering their password.

Once the user enters their password, the system compares the encrypted version of the password stored in the database to the encrypted version of the password the user entered. If the two versions match, the system grants access to the user.

Password Encryption

Password encryption is a crucial component of password security. When users create passwords, the password is encrypted or transformed into a format that is more secure and difficult for attackers to decipher. In modern systems, the most commonly used encryption method for passwords is a one-way hashing algorithm.

One-way hashing algorithms work by taking the plaintext password and using a mathematical function to convert it into a fixed-length string of characters, known as a hash. The hash is unique to the original password and cannot be reversed to reveal the plaintext password. This means that even if an attacker gains access to the password database, they cannot retrieve the original passwords.

There are many different one-way hashing algorithms available, including MD5, SHA-1, SHA-256, and SHA-512. Each of these algorithms produces a different length of hash and offers different levels of security. 

When a user creates a new password, the system applies the hashing algorithm to the password and stores the resulting hash in the database. When the user enters their password to log in, the system applies the hashing algorithm to the entered password and compares it to the stored hash. If the hashes match, the system grants access to the user.

Hashing algorithms are designed to be irreversible, which means that retrieving the original password from the stored hash is impossible. This helps to protect passwords from being stolen or compromised in the event of a data breach.

It is common to use salting to further increase password storage security. Salting involves adding a random value, known as a salt, to each password before it is hashed. The salt value is unique to each password and ensures that their hashes will be different even if two users have the same password. This makes it more difficult for attackers to use precomputed hash tables or rainbow tables to crack passwords.

Factors that Determine Password Strength

Modern password systems use various methods to quantify the strength of a password. One commonly used method is the use of password complexity rules, which require users to include a mix of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols in their passwords. These rules can also require a minimum password length, which ensures that the password contains enough characters to be secure.

Password strength is determined by a combination of factors:

  • Length: The length of a password is one of the most important factors in determining its strength. Generally, longer passwords are considered more secure because they provide more combinations of characters, making them more difficult to guess or crack. For example, assuming a character set of 62 possible characters (26 uppercase letters, 26 lowercase letters, and 10 digits):
  • A 6-character password would have 62^6 possible combinations or approximately 56 billion possible combinations
  • A 10-character password would have 62^10 possible combinations or approximately 839 sextillion possible combinations
  • Complexity: Password complexity refers to the use of a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols in a password. Passwords that include a mix of these types of characters are considered more secure than passwords that use only letters or numbers.
  • A 6-character password with all lowercase letters would have 26^6 possible combinations, which is approximately 309 million possible combinations.
  • A 6-character password with alphanumeric characters with a mix of lowercase and uppercase characters plus symbols would have 72^6 possible combinations, approximately 139 billion possible combinations.
  • Uniqueness: Uniqueness refers to the use of a password that is not easily guessable or based on personal information. Passwords that are unique and unrelated to personal information, such as names or birthdates, are considered more secure. For example, assuming a character set of 62 possible characters (26 uppercase letters, 26 lowercase letters, and 10 digits):
  • A 6-character random password would have 62^6 possible combinations or approximately 56 billion possible combinations
  • A 6-character non-random password based on common words or patterns could have as few as a few thousand possible combinations, making it easier for an attacker to guess or crack.

Passwords are used because they are a simple and widely accepted way to authenticate users. They are easy to use and remember and can be easily changed if necessary. Passwords are often used in conjunction with other forms of authentication, such as security questions, two-factor authentication (2FA), multi-factor authentication (MFA), password managers, biometric authentication, and access control, to provide additional layers of security.

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