SecurityBrief Asia logo
Asia's leading source of cybersecurity and cyber-attack news
Story image

A short history of the computer password

Mon 15 May 2017
FYI, this story is more than a year old

The password is nothing new. In fact, it has been around for centuries. Way before Hotmail, Skype and Netflix were prompting you to create a secure code with a funky username, the Romans reportedly used passwords as a way to convey important military messages between troops.

Essentially, it was a simple way to protect information. Fast forward a few thousand years and enter Fernando Corbató.

Widely regarded as the godfather of the modern computer password, he introduced the idea to computer science while working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1960.

The university had developed a huge Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) that all researchers had access to. However, they shared a common mainframe as well as a single disk file.

To help keep individual files private, the concept of a password was developed so that users could only access their own specific files for their allotted four hours a week – hey, computer time was limited back in the 60s.

Although the password was less than perfect, something Corbató is the first to admit, it went on to become the go-to method for computer security, both in the personal and corporate spheres, due to its simplicity (although this would later be seen as one of its faults).

Hashing, salt and cryptology

In those early days of computing, the use of passwords in this sense was fairly limited, mainly to guys like Corbató and his team who were among the first to really explore the power of computers.

However, as the world wide web exploded in the 90s, more and more people began using the internet on a regular basis, creating reams of sensitive data and information in the process.

But even before the web went into overdrive, early computer scientists were working on a way to make passwords more secure. And, to do that, computer science took a leaf from cryptology.

Working for Bell Labs in the 70s, cryptographer Robert Morris devised “hashing”; the process by which a string of characters is transformed into a numerical code that represents the original phrase.

Hashing was adopted in early unix-like operating systems, which are widely used today across the world in mobile devices and workstations. Apple’s macOS, for example, uses unix, while the PlayStation 4 uses Orbis OS, a unix-like operating system.

Adding yet another level of security, modern password databases can also employ “salting” to further encrypt a password whereby random data is inserted before the password, and then the resulting string is hashed.

This, however, doesn’t stop a simple password from being guessed: the main aim is to stop a leaked password or multiple passwords (for example, in the event a database has been breached) from being cracked and used.

But back when Corbató devised the password, security wasn’t such a huge issue: hacking, as we understand it today, didn’t really appear until the 80s.

Now, it’s a different story: almost everything is online.

From banking and shopping, to TV and music, we keep our data safe with a string of digits and letters. But how safe is it? Even huge companies eBay and LinkedIn have been attacked in recent years, compromising the passwords of their users.

The pros and cons of the password

There are a couple of seemingly intrinsic problems with passwords. One, it seems to be that short ones are easy to remember but easier to guess. Two, longer ones are harder to crack but harder to remember.

Keeping so many different passwords can be difficult too. Just think about how many online accounts the average person has: online banking, personal email, iTunes, Skype, Amazon … the list goes on and on.

This has led many people to just use one or two passwords across the board. This, of course, poses a major problem: if attackers work it out, they then have access to everything.

Another issue is the choice of the password itself. Shockingly, SplashData found that a great many people still used “password” or “123456” as the key to their sensitive data – it’s not going to take a cybercriminal much effort or time to crack that code now, is it?

The password is dead … long live the password

Passwords do, of course, provide a level of security, and despite the likes of Bill Gates saying it was dead way back in 2004, most companies with online portals still use them.

So how can you make your passwords more secure? Well, there are a few options.

The people behind World Password Day, an initiative focused on improving password strength, suggest that each account should have its own unique password to avoid this very issue.

Creating strong passwords in the first place is also crucial. Codes that combine words and numbers, avoid obvious personal information and that are eight or more letters in length generally work best.

Users can also adopt a “passcode” strategy for increased security or adopt two-factor authentication, where a password is only one step in gaining access to sensitive data.

Further, moving beyond passwords is recommended – passphrases, for example, offer users better security courtesy of longer and complex sentences, while still being easy to remember.

If all this password malarkey seems a bit much, you could take a leaf from the late cryptographer Robert Morris (father of Robert Morris Jr, author of the Morris Worm). Besides his contributions to password hashing the above tips, he had a slightly more unusual suggestion for computer security:

“The three golden rules to ensure computer security are: do not own a computer; do not power it on, and do not use it.” A little too extreme perhaps …

Article by Welivesecurity.

Related stories
Top stories
Story image
Cybersecurity
Cybersecurity prompts upgrade for 1.3 billion electricity meters
ABI Research finds Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and cybersecurity concerns are prompting the upgrade of 1.3 billion electricity meters by 2027.
Story image
Training
Trojan cyber attacks hitting SMBs harder than ever - Kaspersky
In 2022 the number of Trojan-PSW detections increased by almost a quarter compared to the same period in 2021 to reach 4,003,323.
Story image
New Relic
New Relic launches vulnerability management platform
New Relic has introduced New Relic Vulnerability Management to help organisations find and address security risks faster and with greater precision.
Story image
Employment
Tech job moves - Forcepoint, Malwarebytes, SolarWinds & VMware
We round up all job appointments from May 13-20, 2022, in one place to keep you updated with the latest from across the tech industries.
Story image
Artificial Intelligence
Updates from Google Workspace set to ease hybrid working troubles
Google Workspace has announced a variety of new features which will utilise Google AI capabilities to help make hybrid working situations more efficient and effective.
Story image
DDoS
NT selects Radware to improve telecom cyber defenses
National Telecom Public Company (NT) has chosen Radware to strengthen the cyber defences of its international telecommunications infrastructure.
Story image
SaaS
Absolute Software expands Secure Access product offering
Absolute Software is enhancing its Secure Access product portfolio, enabling minimised risk exposure and optimised user experiences in the hybrid working environment.
Story image
Cybersecurity
CyberArk launches $30M investment fund to advance security
CyberArk has announced the launch of CyberArk Ventures, a $30 million global investment fund dedicated to advancing the next generation of security disruptors.
Story image
Remote Working
How zero trust and SD-WANs can support productive remote working
The way people connect with applications and data has changed, users are remotely accessing resources that could be stored anywhere from a corporate data center to the cloud.
Story image
Sift
Sift shares crucial advice for preventing serious ATO breaches
Are you or your business struggling with Account Takeover Fraud (ATO)? One of the latest ebooks from Sift can provide readers with the tools and expertise to help launch them into the new era of account security.
Story image
Apricorn
Data backup plans inadequate, data still at risk - study
The Apricorn 2022 Global IT Security Survey revealed that while the majority organisations have data backup plans in place, data for many are at risk.
Story image
Digital Transformation
How to modernise legacy apps without compromising security
At a time when digital transformation has become central to business, even the most important applications come with a ‘use-by’ date.
Story image
SaaS
Rubrik Security Cloud marks 'next frontier' in cybersecurity
"The next frontier in cybersecurity pairs the investments in infrastructure security with data security giving companies security from the point of data."
Story image
Cybersecurity
Managed service providers: effective scoping to avoid costly vendor pitfalls
Managed security services are outsourced services focusing on the security and resilience of business networks.
Story image
Phishing
Google reveals new safety and security measures for users
Google's new measures include automatic two step verification, virtual cards and making it easier to remove contact information on Google Search results.
Story image
Data Protection
Barracuda launches new capabilities for API Protection
"Every business needs this type of critical protection against API vulnerabilities and automated bot attacks," Barracuda says.
Story image
Artificial Intelligence
ForgeRock releases Autonomous Access solution powered by AI
ForgeRock has officially introduced ForgeRock Autonomous Access, a new solution that uses AI to prevent identity-based cyber attacks and fraud.
Story image
Digital Transformation
Physical security systems guide the hybrid workplace to new heights
Organisations are reviewing how data gathered from their physical security systems can optimise, protect and enhance their business operations in unique ways.
Story image
Phishing
KnowBe4 celebrates reaching 50,000 customers worldwide
KnowBe4 has reached the milestone of 50,000 customers, adding nearly 2,500 in the first quarter of 2022 alone.
Story image
Cybersecurity
Noname Security partners with Netpoleon to target API issues
Specialist API security firm Noname Security has appointed Netpoleon as its distributor in Australia and New Zealand.
Story image
BeyondTrust
BeyondTrust integrates Password Safe solution with SailPoint
BeyondTrust has announced the integration of BeyondTrust Password Safe with SailPoint identity security offerings.
Story image
Ransomware
Cybersecurity starts with education
In 2021, 80% of Australian organisations responding to the Sophos State of Ransomware study reported being hit by ransomware. 
Story image
Ivanti
Ivanti and Lookout bring zero trust security to hybrid work
Ivanti and Lookout have joined forces to help organisations accelerate cloud adoption and mature their zero trust security posture in the everywhere workplace.
Story image
Migration
Let’s clear the cloud visibility haze with app awareness
Increasingly, organisations are heading for the cloud, initiating new born-in-the-cloud architectures and migrating existing applications via ‘lift and shift’ or refactoring.
Story image
Malware
New vulnerabilities found in Nuspire’s Q1 2022 Threat Report
“Threat actors are quickly adjusting their tactics and these exploits tend to get industry attention, but the threat posed by older and attacks still persists."
Story image
Cybersecurity
More than 40% of banks worried about cloud security - report
Publicis Sapient's new report finds security and the lack of cloud skills and internal understanding of business benefits are big obstacles for banks moving to the cloud.
Story image
Cybersecurity
ThoughtLab reveals 10 best practices for cybersecurity in 2022
The benchmarking study reveals best practices that can reduce the probability of a material breach and the time it takes to find and respond to those that happen.
Story image
Tech job moves
Tech job moves - Datacom, Micro Focus, SnapLogic and VMware
We round up all job appointments from May 6-12, 2022, in one place to keep you updated with the latest from across the tech industries.
Story image
Nozomi Networks
Nozomi Networks, Siemens reveal software integration
Nozomi Networks and Siemens have extended their partnership by embedding Nozomi Networks’ software into the Siemens Scalance LPE local processing engine.
Story image
Silver Peak
The path to an adaptive, modern network
Managing and securing the network looks different than it did just two years ago—especially given that most of these networks are made up of multi-generations of infrastructure stitched together over time.
Story image
Cybersecurity
A10 Networks finds over 15 million DDoS weapons in 2021
A10 Networks notes that in the 2H 2021 reporting period, its security research team tracked more than 15.4 million Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) weapons.
Story image
Remote Working
Successful digital transformation in the hybrid work era is about embracing shifting goalposts
As organisations embraced remote working, many discovered they lacked the infrastructure needed to support history’s first global load test of remote work capabilities.
Story image
Supply chain
Jetstack promotes better security with supply chain toolkit
The web-based resource is designed to help organisations evaluate and plan the crucial steps they need to establish effective software supply chain security.
Story image
Amazon Web Services / AWS
RedShield leverages AWS to scale cybersecurity services
"Working with AWS gives RedShield the ability to mitigate significant application layer DDoS attacks, helping leaders adopt best practices and security architectures."
Story image
Cloud Security
Aqua Security createa unified scanner for cloud native security
“By integrating more cloud native scanning targets into Trivy, such as Kubernetes, we are simplifying cloud native security."
Story image
Cybersecurity
The 'A-B-C' of effective application security
Software applications have been a key tool for businesses for decades, but the way they are designed and operated has changed during the past few years.
SonicWall
Find out how you and your business can prevent being caught out by everything from ransomware to cryptojacking.
Link image
Story image
Application Security
What are the DDoS attack trend predictions for 2022?
Mitigation and recovery are vital to ensuring brand reputation remains solid in the face of a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack and that business growth and innovation can continue.
Story image
Artificial Intelligence
AI-based email security platform Abnormal Security valued at $4B
"A new breed of cybersecurity solutions that leverage AI is required to change the game and stop the rising threat of sophisticated and targeted email attacks."
Story image
Cybersecurity
Video: 10 Minute IT Jams - An update from IronNet
Michael Ehrlich joins us today to discuss the history of IronNet and the crucial role the company plays in the cyber defence space.
Story image
Ransomware
A third of companies paying ransom don’t recover data - report
Veeam's report finds 76% of businesses who are victims of cyberattacks paid the ransom to recover data, but a third were still unable to get their information back.
Story image
Customer experience
Gartner recognises Okta for abilities in Access Management
Okta has announced it has been recognised as a Customers' Choice for the fourth time in a row in the Gartner Peer Insights "Voice of the Customer" report.
Story image
Artificial Intelligence
How to ensure ethical deployment of AI implementations
The increase in automation and machine technology such as AI and machine learning has unlocked a whole new level of scale and service to organisations. 
Story image
Ransomware
Zerto unveils updates to ransomware recovery capabilities
"Organisations face increased risks from the volume and sophistication of ransomware attacks prevalent today."