Bad Actors are all over the internet (not just in your local multiplex), mostly aiming to gain access to data and systems for nefarious purposes, though sometimes they try to do good. Data breaches generally start with the weakest link in the chain: PEBKAC, in other words, It’s Your Problem.
Identity protection company SpyCloud reports that more than two-thirds of passwords which have been breached online are still in use and most users still have the same username and password combo across multiple accounts. If you want to keep your own personal identity and data safe, it’s job #1 to make sure you have unique passwords for each website you use, and that the passwords are not made up of guessable words or phrases.
The Edge browser gives you some tools to manage your passwords better – look for the Password Generator, or the drop-down Suggest strong password option, when you’re registering a new sign-in, and it will generate a long and complex password, stored in your account so in future you can be automatically signed in.
Some sites don’t trigger the password generator or suggestion – perhaps due to how they describe or display the password field(s) – so another option is to use a browser extension like btPass – numerous others are available. It simply drops an icon on the browser toolbar and will show a password of varying complexity and length, which can be quickly copied to the clipboard and pasted into password fields. Since some sites don’t like special characters in the password, you can tweak or edit the text it creates.
Security software company F-Secure has launched a free online password generator, if you’d prefer to create your secrets that way.
The Manage passwords option seen in some password drop-downs – also available from the settings menu or by entering edge://settings/passwords into the address bar – gives access to Password Monitor, which warns you if passwords you have saved are known to have been breached, and can display a list of the sites where your previously-set password has been found in a trove of hacked accounts.
You can quickly check the password used and decide to visit the page to change it – assuming the site still exists – or simply ignore it (on the assumption that you’ll be cleaning up and not using the compromised passwords on any sites you still want to actually visit).
If you install Microsoft Authenticator on your phone and sign in with the same account as you use in your browser, the saved passwords will be available through Authenticator too – so having very complex passwords should be no barrier to usability any more.
One of the problems with free software and particularly free services, is that at some point, they might stop being free. The path of freely-provided online services is littered with companies who gave their service away to get the users, then grappled with the reality that more users means more costs to deliver the service – and if they don’t get enough income from whatever sources they can, the free ride will come to an end. Just look at Photobucket. And every web site that makes you whitelist them in your ad-blocker before you can continue.
The latest in a line of what-used-to-be-free but is now tightening its belt is LastPass, an excellent password manager that has a lot of users but may end up with a good few fewer. The day after the Ides of March, LastPass Free will only allow use on a single device type, so if you currently use it to sync passwords across desktops and tablets or mobiles, then you need to start paying (and maybe you should) or stick to either mobile or desktop.
As soon as the company announced its plans, the web sprung up many articles offering “what is the best alternative to…” type advice. Only a few weeks ago, ToW#561 espoused the virtues of cleaning up your passwords, featuring LastPass and also trailing some features that were coming to an alternative that you might already be using to provide 2 factor authentication on your phone – Microsoft Authenticator.
It’s fairly easy to switch to using Authenticator on your device to also sync passwords and to provide the Auto-Fill function which plugs in usernames/passwords not only to sites on your mobile browser but to other apps too. If you already have a load of passwords set up in LastPass or other locations, there are methods to export them and then import the data into Authenticator.
In the case of LastPass, you sign into the Vault (either through the browser plugin or directly on their website) and under Advanced Options, select the Export function. It will immediately drop a lastpass_export.csv file into your Downloads folder; be very careful with this file as it contains all your usernames & passwords in clear text.
You can get these passwords into Authenticator either by copying the file to your phone (Not a Good Idea) and importing from there, or by installing the Microsoft Autofill extension for Chrome into Edge (remember, Edge is a Chromium browser under the hood), then click on Settings and choose the Import data feature.
Now navigate to your Downloads folder and choose the lastpass_export file. It might take a little while to complete, but when it’s done, make sure you go back to the Downloads folder and hard-delete that CSV file (ie select the file, hold the SHIFT key down and press the Delete key – this makes sure it doesn’t go to the recycle bin). You definitely don’t want that file being left behind, or copied or synced anywhere that is not encrypted.
The LastPass browser extension (like other password managers) remains potentially useful on the desktop as it can help to sync passwords between profiles (eg the Work and Personal profile of Edge, if both have the extension installed and logged in using the same LastPass account), or even between browsers – in the cases you might want to use Chrome for some things and Edge for others.
Edge on the PC does have password sync capabilities, though not quite with the same level of flexibility –
Edge will let you sync passwords, favourites etc if you’re using a Microsoft Account (eg outlook.com) for your Personal profile, and it may do if you have a Microsoft 365 account for your Work Profile.
In a twist of fate, if you pay for a Microsoft 365 Family or a small business environment rather than using the free Microsoft Account, your subscription lacks the Azure Information Protection feature that is required to allow syncing. In which case, a 3rd party password sync feature may be your best option, even if you choose to use Authenticator on your mobile device, and perhaps do a periodic export/import from LastPass to keep your mobile passwords in sync.
Just over a year ago, the new release of the Edge browser with the Chromium engine was released, and lots of functionality has been shipped since. Much effort has been to differentiate the Edge browser from others, because it integrates better with Microsoft services and other offerings. From synching settings, history, favourites, extensions… to adding protections around passwords and having a great multi-profile experience… it’s been getting better all the time. But 88 updates? That’s crazy!
(it doesn’t necessarily have 88 updates – that was just a ploy to get in the Crazy 88 link above)
The latest version of Edge shipped to mainstream users recently; release 88 is named after the core engine version, so Google shipped Chrome 88 at the same time. Some of the “what’s new” in Chrome will be consistent with Edge, since the rendering engine is the same – like the deprecation of a couple of features; Chrome & Edge no longer have FTP support natively, and they finally killed Flash.
Back to Edge 88 – go to the … menu, then settings | about to find which version you have – there are a bunch of cool things to try out or investigate:
Themes – there are some really nice pre-built themes packaging background images and colour schemes; see them here. You can apply a theme to a specific user profile, which might help you differentiate them from each other – so a Forza or Halo theme applied to your personal profile would change the colour scheme for that one, making it easier to spot which profile you’re using. You can also add themes from the Chrome web store.
Sleeping Tabs – helping to reduce system resource demands, Edge can now make tabs go to sleep if they haven’t been used for a while. You need to switch it on (the plan being that it will be a default in a later version) by going to edge://flags and search for sleep.
If you regularly use websites that fire notifications – like mail, or news readers – then be aware that they will not show when the tab is asleep. Work is underway to report back which sites should not be put to sleep, so Edge will be able to know when it’s a help and when it would be a nuisance.
Passwords – as discussed previously when it was in dev mode, the password monitoring and strong password suggestion features are now generally available. Edge can look for common username/password combinations that are in your cached credentials, but which are known to have been leaked.
If you get a report of such a leak, you should change all of the passwords on affected sites as soon as possible. Looking under Edge Settings / Profile / Passwords, you should see the options to enable both Password Monitor and suggestion. For more info on how the Password Monitor works, check out this MS Research note.
PWAs and Profiles – Progressive Web Apps are increasingly being seen as the way to take a site and treat it like an app; it can show up in Start menu, can be pinned to task bar, will run with a specific icon and name, and won’t have all the UI of a browser, so it looks just like a native app.
To install a PWA on Edge, just go to the … menu on the top right when you’re browsing to a site, and you should see Apps > Install … as an option. You get to give the “app” a name, and it will then look and feel much like a native application.
If you install the PWA in more than one Edge browser profile, there’s a new function that means when you start the app – from the Start menu etc – then you can switch between which profile it should run in (scoping identity, passwords etc within).
As most of us look to put 2020 firmly behind us and take some down-time over the festive season, there may be a list of jobs which get left to this time of year – filling out the annual tax return, maybe, or clearing out that drawer with miscellaneous stuff in it.
You could set your sights higher, even – like gathering all the papers scattered throughout your house (user guides, receipts, utility bills etc etc) and putting them in one place, as recommended by Getting Things Done guru, David Allen.
Or just scan them all in then recycle…
Maybe it’s time to finally sort out all the passwords you use for different websites. Even though Multi-Factor Authentication is gradually replacing the need to enter a username & password every time you access a resource, there’s still often a need to create a username and password combo when you sign up for something. If you’ve used Edge or Chrome to remember your passwords, you might find there are many hundreds of them, and being weak carbon-based lifeforms, we’re quite likely to use the same ones for many sites. Naughty!
There are browser addins and other tools you can use to remember the passwords you use, and (using LastPass as an example) can give you the option of generating something strong and unique at the point of signing up on a site, then syncing that username and password back to a central service so you don’t need to re-enter it next time (or remember something truly unmemorable). LastPass recently announced their 2020 stats – they’ve generated 94 million secure passwords and been used to log in more than 10 billion times.
Microsoft Edge offers some password management capabilities – as well as being able to remember passwords within the Edge browser, and sync them between different machines or mobile devices, Edge is also getting to be capable of suggesting and storing complex passwords for new sign-ups.
Edge is beefing up its password security in other ways, offering proactive warnings if your passwords have shown up in databases of leaked credentials (at the moment, this is a test feature in the dev builds). One-by-one, you can use Edge’s “fix leaked passwords” function to check what the existing password is for each site, and then click a button to jump to the site to reset it – in some cases, going straight to the change password part of the site.
Finally, the password sync feature is getting some extra legs – using the Microsoft Authenticator app on your phone and it’s new beta Autofill feature, you can use that app to provide the username/password for website or even mobile app logins. There’s a Chrome extension too, so if you want to switch back and forth between Edge & Chrome on a PC, your passwords will be available to both.
In some senses, storing passwords and allowing them to be automatically filled in feels like a security risk – anyone with access to your unlocked computer or phone could potentially access your online services. Using Autofill and Authenticator, though, the default setup is to require biometric authentication – so you’ll need a fingerprint or camera, or unlocking with a PIN, before the auto-fill will happen.
Also, it’s more important to have complex passwords that are hard to break or guess, and to have different ones for each and every site or app you use.
This is the final ToW for 2020. Let’s hope ’21 brings us all better luck.
Previous Tips have covered making use of 2FA – or 2 Factor Authentication – with your Microsoft Account (ie your account from Outlook.com/Hotmail/MSN/Passport etc) and how to manage passwords better, so you don’t end up with P@ssw0rd1 for every single one of your website logins. Dealing with passwords can be complicated and since humans are typically weak and seek the path of least resistance, this can often lead to huge security lapses.
So 2FA – or its cousin, Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) – is a better way to secure things, as a remote system can validate that the user knows something which identifies them (their username & password, secret phrase, date of birth etc etc) but also has something that identifies them too; a security token, smart card, digital certificate or something else that has been issued, or even just a mobile phone that has been registered previously with whatever is trying to validate them.
Although such systems have been around for a while, the average punter in the EU has been more recently exposed to 2FA through a banking directive that requires it for many services that involve transfer of funds, setting up payments or even using credit cards. In some cases, the tech is pretty straightforward – you get a SMS text message with a 6-digit one-time code that you need to enter into the mobile app or website, thus proving you know something (you’re logged in) and you have something (your phone), so validating that it really is you. Or someone has stolen your phone and your credentials…
MFA is stronger than 2FA, as you can combine what you know and what you have, with what you are. An example could be installing a mobile banking app on your phone then enrolling your account number, username & password; the know is your credentials, and the have is a certificate or unique identifier associated with your phone, as it’s registered as a trusted device by the banking service that’s being accessed. Using your fingerprint to unlock the app would add a 3rd level of authentication – so the only likely way that your access to the service (for transferring funds or whatever) could be nefarious, is if you are physically being coerced into doing it.
2FA and MFA aren’t perfect but they’re a lot better than username & password alone, and Microsoft’s @Alex Weinert this week wrote that it’s time to give up on simpler 2FA like SMS and phone-call based validations, in favour of a stronger MFA approach. And what better way that to use the free Microsoft Authenticator app?
Once you have Authenticator set up and running, It’s really easy to add many services or apps to it – let’s use Twitter as an example. If you’re using a browser, go to Settings and look under Security and account access | Security | two-factor authentication.
In the Microsoft Authenticator app itself, add an account from the menu in the top right and then choose the option that it’s for “other” – presuming you’ve already have enrolled your Work or school Account (Microsoft/Office 365) and your Personal account (MSA, ie Outlook.com etc).
After tapping the option to add, point your phone at the QR code on the screen and you’re pretty much done; you’ll need to enter a one-time code to confirm it’s all set up – rather than getting an SMS, go into the list of accounts in the Authenticator app home screen, open the account you’ve just added then enter the 6-digit code that’s being displayed. This is the method you’ll use in future, rather than waiting to be sent the 6-digit code by text.
As you can see from the description, there are lots of other 3rd party apps and websites that support MFA using authenticator apps –
So you write your passwords down (srsly, don’t do that), sometimes in an obvious way – there’s a (probably apocryphal) story of a senior healthcare professional who left their laptop (with lots of sensitive data on it, obviously) in a taxi… the standard disk encryption neatly foiled by a Postit note stuck to the lid with their username and password on it…
Corporate domain passwords will generally enforce a certain degree of complexity, frequency of changing, and may even add certificate or token based authentication that needs to be used in combination with other forms – so called secondary or multi-factor authentication (2FA/MFA. It’s getting pretty common now for web sites to offer or even force 2FA, achieved via texting a one-time login code, or using a mobile app to authenticate you. ToW #371 covered how to enable 2FA for your Microsoft Account (MSA) – you really should switch that on.
For most people’s private credentials (used for logging into websites concerned with personal lives rather than work), usernames & passwords – with the odd secret question thrown in – are the main way they’ll access sensitive information from their phone or PC. And forcing the changing of passwords on a very regular basis can be a bad idea, too, as people are more likely to use easily-guessable passwords that are in turn easy for them to remember.
The average person, apparently, is many times more likely to fall victim to some sort of computer-related incident than a more traditional robbery. You might be hoodwinked yourself, or through your lax credentials, your account might be compromised and used to scam other unsuspecting punters – as happens regularly on eBay.
The Man on the Clapham omnibus is also likely to use the same username & password for every website or other system they can, even though many know they shouldn’t. It’s easy to recall the same few sets of credentials, rather than having to go and look something up every time. Don’t do this.
If you want to scare yourself into action, have a look on https://haveibeenpwned.com/ and see if your (consumer) email address is on there; chances are, it might have leaked from one of the many high-profile data breaches that have happened over the years. Try entering a common password you might use on https://haveibeenpwned.com/Passwords and it’ll tell you if that password has ever been leaked… and advise you never to use that password again.
Password managers are a way to help combat the issue – so you could have a different password for each site, sometimes even a random password that the password manager itself will generate for you. Examples include 1Password, LastPass, KeePass, Dashlane, eWallet… many will be browser based or have extensions (even for Edge!), so you can log in easily despite the complexity of your passwords. If the password manager has a cloud-storage vault, make sure it’s encrypted and there’s no way it could be compromised … and make sure you use a suitably complex but easy to remember password to unlock the password manager vault. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
If you use a password manager already, it may even have a report you can run to see how well protected you are…