One password for multiple accounts: don't do it!

When you leave your flat, do you leave the door wide open with your jewelry and valuables on the coffee table? When you visit a popular coffee shop, do you leave your iPad and smartphone on the table and go off shopping for an hour or two?

Of course you don't. Yet 70% of Hong Kongers use the same password for an average of seven online accounts. This shocking statistic comes from a recent survey commissioned by PayPal Hong Kong and designed and executed online by CityU during two weeks in August, with over 1,200 responders.

I know: multiple passwords are annoying. What's worse, sites demand different criteria for your password, and some even demand that you change it on a regular basis.

Fortunately, the HKMA mandated two-factor authentication for online banking years ago. That means a Hong Kong bank can send a serially numbered hard token (the thing that displays a temporary code) to each of its customers. Two-factor authentication is what allows the world-class e-channel Immigration entry/exit from Hong Kong and Macau: an ID card with your embedded thumbprint and a biometric thumbprint-reader provide the two essential authentication factors. This is good security practice.

Using the same password for multiple accounts is extremely bad security practice. There are software programs for mobile and fixed platforms that will allow you to manage multiple passwords--some even generate random-passwords for you that you will never have to remember. In 2011, there is no excuse for using the same password on more than one site. If you're compromised on one, you're an easy target on the others.

How do criminals break passwords? Often, through "brute-force": a computerized program runs through possible combinations until it cracks your password. And of course, it starts with the most common ones, which are invariably weak.

If you're part of the 70% who uses the same password on multiple online accounts, it's likely you didn't give much thought to a strong password either. What's a weak password? Check this link, which lists the top twenty (there's an additional link to the top 500 passwords, but be warned that many are words we wouldn't print in CWHK!).

Why am I being so forceful about this? Not to be rude--I too have trouble remembering all my passwords. It's aggravating. But so too is calling a locksmith if you're accidentally locked out of your flat. Would you rather call the locksmith, or leave your door open all day long?

Security means putting up with inconvenience. There are several ways to simplify your multiple-password setup, as there should be--no one can remember all the passwords we need for our digital life, nor should we be expected to. There are free and low-cost password-managers out there for every platform. There is no excuse for using the same password on any online account with your personal details. Use unique, difficult-to-guess passwords for every account. Make yourself a moving-target for cybercriminals.

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