When picking passwords, users often fall back on certain insecure patterns, but good habits can be learned using simple games, a group of researchers find.

Passwords continue to be problematic for many companies because users tend to pick predictable combinations of letters, numbers, and symbols. Using a game for training can reinforce the rules for picking stronger passwords, a group of researchers from the India-based Tata Consulting Services stated in a presentation at the USENIX Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security on August 10 and in a report.

In a study with the company’s 4,904 employees, the researchers found that an educational game — called Passworld — improved users’ choice of passwords along several measurements, such as creating unique sequences of characters without duplicates or repeating patterns. The game required users to find a valuable artifact and then protect it using a strong set of gates, each of which represented a letter, number, or special symbol. 

While the game did not actually try to break the player’s password, it did evaluate the user’s choices against the list of rules, said Gokul Chettoor Jayakrishnan, a researcher with Tata Consultancy Services and one of the authors of the paper.

“We are not exclusively telling the users that this is a strong password, but at the end of the game, we are seeing whether the users learned the heuristics and produced more diverse passwords at the end,” he says.

The game first tested the player’s knowledge of the heuristics for strong password creation during a pretest, and then had the user play the game and create a password. Then it distracted the user with minigames, until the game tested the person’s recall of the password. Finally, the game tested the player’s knowledge of strong passwords. 

While users originally tended to follow similar, insecure practices to create passwords — such as a word followed by a number — after playing the game, the participants increased their password diversity, the paper found. In addition, many fewer employees chose to include blocked terms in their passwords, leading to a 77% reduction in the use of common organizational terms.

“In the beginning, there was a common trend of the users to create similar passwords, because there were rules, such as the password must be a certain length,” Jayakrishnan said. “But once they played the game, there was a greater diversity of passwords.”

Users’ poor choice of passwords, and the penchant to reuse passwords, have been at the heart of many data breaches and network compromises. Smaller companies of less than 25 employees tend to have 14 passwords per employee, while those in larger companies of more than 1,000 employees have only 4 passwords per person, credential management firm LastPass stated in its “2019 Annual Global Password Security” report.

Password strength meters, which give users an interactive metric of a password as they are entering the characters, help to some extent, but researchers have found that some users mistrust the guides because the users have no foundation in the rules for creating strong passwords, the researchers stated in their paper.

For many companies, the solution is to take users’ choices out of the equation. Companies are increasingly adopting multifactor authentication (MFA) to help strengthen security that otherwise would rely on employees’ password choice. In 2019, 57% of companies had adopted MFA, up from 45% the previous year, according to the LastPass report.

In addition, as password managers have become more common on mobile devices, employees have increasingly adopted the technology. Nearly a quarter of employees used a password manager on their mobile devices, according to LastPass. 

The gamification of everything has not necessarily improved every metric of security. Users still chose to use predictable keyboard patterns, such as “querty,” and predictable placement of uppercase letters, such as the beginning or end of a sentence. 

“Some of the heuristics saw a decline, including keyboard patterns and uppercase patterns, which may indicate that they need more training in the game,” Jayakrishnan says.

The researchers intend to add modifications to the game to incorporate what they have learned, such as reminding users in real time about the importance of not including common uppercase or keyboard patterns.

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Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT’s Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline … View Full Bio

 

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