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Secure your Mac: strong passwords

Scott McNulty

It is a sad fact of life that your Mac is only as secure as your password is strong. A good password is complex enough to thwart both idle hands ('I wonder if Scott is as dumb as he looks. I bet his password is 12345. Let me try it and find out') and dastardly hackers out to steal your personal information ('Ah, some fool has left his Mac unattended, let me try some brute force dictionary attacks in hopes that I will gain entrance into his digital domain and clear out his bank account AND delete all his iPhoto pictures'). Sadly, passwords that make security conscious paranoid freaks like myself happy are both difficult to remember and to type (it is all part of their charm). Luckily, Apple has included a small utility that can help you find a password both complex and memorable.

Read on to learn how.

The Password Assistant (pictured above) is available when OS X prompts you for a password in Accounts or when you manually create a new Password item in the Keychain. Simply click on the lock and the Password Assistant springs into action offering up some secure passwords for you like so:

You have a few options with Password Assistant:

  • The type of password you are going to create. Password Assistant offers:
    • Manual - This allows you to manually enter a password of your choice, which is great to see how good (or how bad) your current passwords are.
    • Memorable - Creates a password composed of a mix of words and random characters that is both easy to remember and secure.
    • Letters & Numbers - Creates a password with no punctuation marks in the mix.
    • Numbers Only - Good if you want a password with only numbers in it.
    • Random - Completely random password, which will be tough to remember but very tough to crack.
    • FIPS-181 compliant - Creates a password that complies with Government standards regarding password creation (you can read about it here).
  • Once you decide on what type of password you want, you need to choose the length. Recent versions of OS X support password lengths of 8 to 31 characters (read this KB article for older versions of OS X). I'm hoping that Leopard will bring support for passphrases, but until that happens we'll have to suffer with the system limitations.
Once you have decided on the options, a password is generated for you (unless, of course, you picked 'Manual,' in which case you will have entered your password by hand). Password Assistant also rates the Quality of the password with a simple meter (filling it all the way to the top with green means you have a very good password) which is quite helpful when deciding on which password to use. Be sure to note that if you aren't thrilled with the password that is offered up you can click on the arrow and find a few alternatives, and get even more suggestions should none of those tickle your fancy.

There you have it, a quick and relatively painless way to create a secure and memorable password. Because let's face it, if you can't remember your super complex password it won't do you a lick of good.

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