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Passwords are a way of life now. It’s hard to imagine what the Internet would be like without any passwords, isn’t it? Yet, if we contemplated the idea of a password for even a moment, we’d realize that passwords just aren’t very secure. Indeed, most security experts already know this, yet here we are still using passwords. Why?

With every other hacked database and credit card scandal that occurs, it becomes more evident that we can’t rely on passwords for much longer. But if not passwords, what else is there?

Why We Started Using Passwords

The ancient Romans had a system of watchwords that were used to prove one’s identity and authority. By extension, watchwords were used to gain entry into secret locations or to gain access to private resources. Sounds a lot like modern passwords, right? These watchwords were changed as frequently as once per day and proved quite effective.

Eventually, watchwords evolved into passwords and counter-passwords, where a sentry would present a cryptic question or phrase and expect a predetermined response. Think of a modern website’s security question and you’ve got the right idea.

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For example, in the Battle of Normandy, U.S. soldiers uttered “Flash” when encountering unknown groups out in the field. By replying with “Thunder,” soldiers could prove that they were truly allies rather than spies or imposters.

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Computers have their roots in the military, so is it a surprise that we adopted the password mechanism for specialized access? We’ve made a few advancements – such as tying a password directly to a username for personal accounts – but the concept has been around for thousands of years.

Passwords: The One Huge Flaw

Passwords have served us well, there’s no doubt about that. However, they aren’t perfect. Not by a long shot. In fact, the concept of a password has one glaring flaw that can never be fixed: passwords are all or nothing.

We put a lot of effort into picking a strong password 7 Ways To Make Up Passwords That Are Both Secure & Memorable 7 Ways To Make Up Passwords That Are Both Secure & Memorable Having a different password for each service is a must in today's online world, but there's a terrible weakness to randomly generated passwords: it's impossible to remember them all. But how can you possibly remember... Read More and making sure that sensitive data is encrypted Not Just For Paranoids: 4 Reasons To Encrypt Your Digital Life Not Just For Paranoids: 4 Reasons To Encrypt Your Digital Life Encryption isn’t only for paranoid conspiracy theorists, nor is it just for tech geeks. Encryption is something every computer user can benefit from. Tech websites write about how you can encrypt your digital life, but... Read More , but none of that matters once somebody knows the password itself. Once they have it, game’s over. In essence, password protection is security through obscurity, a security practice that’s universally lambasted as weak and ineffective.

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What if we combined passwords with security questions? That seems to be the typical solution used by banks and other places that offer secure accounts, but if you think about it, security questions are just passwords in a different wrapper and suffer from the same issue of using obscurity for security.

That being said, there are plenty of other weaknesses to using passwords in the Internet age:

What Are the Available Alternatives?

Two-factor authentication What Is Two-Factor Authentication, And Why You Should Use It What Is Two-Factor Authentication, And Why You Should Use It Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a security method that requires two different ways of proving your identity. It is commonly used in everyday life. For example paying with a credit card not only requires the card,... Read More is becoming more popular these days. Unlike the password + security question combo, which basically asks for two instances of the same kind of information, two-factor authentication requires two different kinds of identity proof, such as password + mobile phone.

And that’s the direction in which security needs to move. Because passwords are intangible, they can be compromised by knowledge alone. Having some sort of physical proof of identity is a stronger measure of security.

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For example, USB drives can be turned into physical keys 5 Uses for a USB Stick You Didn't Know About 5 Uses for a USB Stick You Didn't Know About We’ve all used USB sticks to transport files between computers and back up our files, but there are other cool things you can do with a USB stick. Read More . The practice isn’t widespread yet, but it seems like it could have many practical uses. What if USB security certificates were given out and used such that certain websites would only grant access while the USB drive was plugged in?

Biometrics – the use of human characteristics for access control – is another area that deserves more pursuit. One possible route would be to use a webcam snapshot as a password 3 Fun Tools to Get More Out of Your Webcam 3 Fun Tools to Get More Out of Your Webcam To be honest, I never understood the big fuss over webcams and video chatting. Sure, it’s nice to chat face to face every once in a while, especially when you haven’t seen your significant other... Read More through the magic of facial recognition. Other routes include fingerprints, iris scans, and voice recognition.

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There is a critical drawback, however, and that’s the possibility of losing access due to disfiguration, amputation, laryngitis, or worse. There’s also the fact that authentication would need to be strict enough not to be fooled by imposters/photos/recordings, yet lenient enough to accommodate day-to-day fluctuations in appearance, voice, etc.

Lastly, some suggest using RFID chips or NFC devices in lieu of a password, allowing you to “swipe” your way through security; in other words, a glorified keycard. But these, too, have their drawbacks. RFID can be intercepted RFID Can Be Hacked: Here's How, & What You Can Do To Stay Safe RFID Can Be Hacked: Here's How, & What You Can Do To Stay Safe How much do you know about RFID chips? Do you know how many you're carrying at any given moment? Do you know what information is stored on them? Do you know how close a hacker... Read More and NFC devices are insecure Using NFC? 3 Security Risks To Be Aware Of Using NFC? 3 Security Risks To Be Aware Of NFC, which stands for near-field communication, is the next evolution and is already a core feature in some of the newer smartphone models like the Nexus 4 and Samsung Galaxy S4. But as with all... Read More .

So what’s the take away? Be sure to use strong passwords 6 Tips For Creating An Unbreakable Password That You Can Remember 6 Tips For Creating An Unbreakable Password That You Can Remember If your passwords are not unique and unbreakable, you might as well open the front door and invite the robbers in for lunch. Read More , maintain good security habits Change Your Bad Habits & Your Data Will Be More Secure Change Your Bad Habits & Your Data Will Be More Secure Read More , and help educate others. Though we’re stuck using passwords for now, we wait eagerly for the day when passwords become old news.

What do you think? Do you embrace the use of passwords or would you rather we move away from them completely? What other alternatives are out there? Share with us in the comments below!

Image Credit: Password Field Via Shutterstock, Security Through Obscurity Via Shutterstock, USB Key Via Shutterstock, Iris Scan Via Shutterstock

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