Why is it important to have different passwords on different accounts?

Using a different password for every login is an important part of overall security and doesn't have to be difficult.

//
Is it safe to have the same password for all of my email accounts? If one has an account in Yahoo! mail, Gmail, rediff mail, etc., and sets the same password for all of them, will it be easier for a hacker or phisher to find out about it?

Using different passwords is much safer than using one password everywhere.

Why?

Because hackers know that most people don’t take the trouble to set that up.

And they know that we typically have more than one account.

Admit it, you’re lazy

I’ll admit it, I’m lazy. And when it comes to trying manage multiple passwords, I’d bet money that most people are as well.

One password everywhere is so much easier. It’s easier than even the easiest password management system. It just is.

It makes our life easy not to have to remember and not to have to use any special tools to remember for us.

The problem is that it makes hackers’ lives easier too.

Hackers know we’re lazy

Hackers know that people find it easier in general to have one password everywhere.

Hackers also know that people generally have more than one account.

So hacking a single account can act as a foot in the door and lead to all sorts of mayhem.

One account leads to more

Quite often, it’s easy to guess that if a person logs in with username X and password Y on a system like Yahoo! mail, it’s likely that they’ll try to replicate both username X with password Y on other systems like Gmail, or just about any system that they might be likely to use.

Extracting a PasswordBut by breaching one account, hackers are also often given clues that’ll let them easily access other accounts.

For example, your Facebook login is your email address and some password. Well, if they’ve hacked your email address and you use the same password everywhere, they now know how to login as you on Facebook.

Account confirmations and notifications are also frequently sent via email. What that means is that your hacked email account might contain many clues as to just what other accounts that you might have.

If you use the same password everywhere, it’s easy sailing for the hacker to then quickly try those out and login as you all over.

The hack might not be your fault

Hacks can happen through no fault of your own. You could be maintaining perfect security and still end up compromised.

Consider all of the places where you have online accounts. Now, let’s assume that the one with the weakest, poorest security gets hacked, and the contents of their entire username/password database is stolen, with your information in it.

You just got hacked and it wasn’t your fault.

If you’re using one password everywhere, the hackers now know it.

There can’t be only one

The bottom line is that using one password everywhere is a risk that you simply shouldn’t allow.

At a minimum, use unique passwords for your important accounts – like banking and other financially related activities.

And don’t forget that all of your email accounts are “important accounts”, particularly if they can be used for password recovery on other accounts. All that a hacker might need do is get your email account, then run over to some other account and request a password reset to be emailed to that account that they control.

I have an admittedly imperfect system (I did say I was lazy.). I have “tiers” of passwords. I use the same password on several unimportant accounts. But for anything marginally important, I go the unique and complex route.

Managing lots of passwords

Whenever I talk about giving each login a different password, I get people who object (often strongly): “This makes no sense at all, no way am I going to remember all those passwords, especially if you’re going to insist that they’re complex on top of everything else”.

You don’t have to.

For example, I don’t know my online banking password. I just don’t. Who’s going to remember something like yFK86jk8q45B? (And no, that’s not it … I said something like…).

Yet I use my account frequently.

Let your computer do the remembering for you.

I’m a big fan of two password management programs: Roboform and Lastpass. There are others as well, but I’ve used Roboform in the past and I’m currently using Lastpass.

Both create secure databases of your login IDs and passwords, and store them so that only you can get at them with your single password. (And yes, that password needs to be strong and memorable.)

Both ease the entire process of logging in by filling in the user ID and password for you – you don’t even need to know what they are.

Both use strong encryption to keep your password database secure on your machine(s). Both also support synchronizing or accessing that database across multiple machines and mobile devices.

And both enable you to use different and strong passwords on every site you care to use.

Which should be most.

This is a minor update to an article originally posted : September 21, 2011

There are 8 comments:

  1. Michael Reply

    QUESTION for your experts:
    My PWs are in a 2007 Excel file which is encrypted (by Excel) and PW protected. Does this seem sufficient?
    (Excel encryption isn’t great but 2007 is better than prior versions.)

  2. Simon Reply

    As an alternative to LastPass, I use KeePass. (I tried both, and I preferred the latter.)

    I keep my KeePass database in my Dropbox, so I can access my passwords from pretty much anywhere: desktop, notebook, netbook, tablet, phone, …

  3. Mark Jacobs Reply

    @Michael
    Excel password protection isn’t very good and is not difficult to crack. If you just have your passwords on your home desktop computer, that might be enough for you. Truecrypt of even an encrypted zip file is much more secure. If you continue to use the Excel file for your passwords, you might want to give it a name which doesn’t give away the fact that it holds your passwords.

  4. Tony Reply

    What will a hacker see if he somehow figures the password for my Roboform or Lastpass??

    I presently follow the rules for creating strong passwords, with something in each that links it in my mind to the specific site being accessed. I occasionally do mess up, but haven’t resorted to password storage yet.

  5. Mark Jacobs Reply

    @Tony
    If someone gets or figures out your LastPass or RoboForm passwords, they have access to all of your stored passwords. So if you use those pick a long, strong password.

    • Tony Reply

      Okay. I’m using it now and I’ve discovered it is most safe to log out of Last Pass after logging in to the needed websites. That way any unauthorized person attempting to use the computer can’t access anything else other than what’s already open.

      Of course other security comes into play such as locking the computer when moving away from it.

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article. Seriously. You'd be shocked at how many people make comments that prove they didn't.
  • Comment only on the article. If you have a new, unrelated question start with the search box at the top of the page.
  • Don't post personal information. Email addresses, phone numbers and such will be removed.

VERY IMPORTANT: because of a rise in comment spam that's making it through our filters any comments that do not add to the discussion - typically off topic or content-free comments - run a very high risk of being flagged as spam and removed.

If you have a new question unrelated to the article above, ask it on the Ask Leo! ask-a-question page.