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To date, system research has focused on designing security mechanisms to protect systems access although their usability has rarely been investigated. This paper reports a study in which users’ perceptions of password mechanisms were investigated through questionnaires and interviews. Analysis of the questionnaires shows that many users report problems, linked to the number of passwords and frequency of password use. In-depth analysis of the interview data revealed that the degree to which users conform to security mechanisms depends on their perception of security levels, information sensitivity and compatibility with work practices. Security mechanisms incompatible with these perceptions may be circumvented by users and thereby undermine system security overall.
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Making Passwords Secure and Usable
Anne Adams
, Martina Angela Sasse
& Peter Lunt
Department of Computer Science, UCL, Gower Street,
London. WC1E 6BT
tel no:- +44 171 419 3462
fax no:- +44 171 387 1397
Email :-
(Contact for correspondence on submission.)
Department of Computer Science, UCL, Gower Street,
London. WC1E 6BT
tel no:- +44 171 380 7212
fax no:- +44 171 387 1397
Email :-
Department of Psychology, UCL, Bedford Way,
London. WC1E 6BT
tel no:- +44 171 387 7050 ext. 5401
Email :-
To date, system research has focused on designing security
mechanisms to protect systems access although their usability has
rarely been investigated. This paper reports a study in which users’
perceptions of password mechanisms were investigated through
questionnaires and interviews. Analysis of the questionnaires shows
that many users report problems, linked to the number of passwords
and frequency of password use. In-depth analysis of the interview
data revealed that the degree to which users conform to security
mechanisms depends on their perception of security levels,
information sensitivity and compatibility with work practices. Security
mechanisms incompatible with these perceptions may be
circumvented by users and thereby undermine system security
Keywords : Security, Passwords, Grounded Theory, Organisational Factors
1 Introduction
Most organisations try to protect their systems from unauthorised access, usually through passwords.
Considerable resources are spent designing secure authentication mechanisms, but the number of
security breaches and problems is still increasing (DeAlvare, 1990; Gordon, 1995; Hitchings, 1995).
Unauthorised access to systems, and resulting theft of information or misuse of the system, is usually
due to hackers “cracking” user passwords, or obtaining them through social engineering. System
security, unlike other fields of system development, has to date been regarded as an entirely technical
issue - little research has been done on usability or human factors related to use of security mechanisms.
Hitchings (1995) concludes that this narrow perspective has produced security mechanisms which are
much less effective than they are generally thought to be. Davis & Price (1987) point out that, since
security is designed, implemented, used and breached by people, human factors should be considered in
the design of security mechanism. It seems that currently hackers pay more attention to human factors
than security designers do. The technique of social engineering, for instance - obtaining passwords by
deception and persuasion - exploits users’ lack of security awareness. Hitchings (1995) also suggests
that organisational factors ought to be considered when assessing security systems. The aim of the
study described in this paper was to identify usability and organisational factors which affect the use of
passwords. The following section provides a brief overview of authentication systems along with
usability and organisational issues which have been identified to date.
1.1 Background
Confidentiality is a key element in information security, with user authentication as the main mechanism
to obtain this (Parker, 1992). Authentication procedures have traditionally been divided into two
different stages. User identification (User ID) initially identifies the user interacting with the system.
As it is merely a means of specifying who the user is, this id does not have to be secured. At the second
- user authentication stage - the user has to be verified as the legitimate user of the ID; the password
used as the means of authentication has to be secret.
Originally, passwords were system-generated to ensure users employed “secure” combinations
of characters. Most users, however, found these passwords hard to remember, and therefore tended to
write them down. Furthermore, security risks were identified in the distribution of system-generated
passwords. Both of these reasons have lead to user-generated passwords as the most widely used
process for password production. In addition to one-word passwords, there are a number of other
authentication mechanisms currently in use:
Passphrases (phrase required instead of a word);
Cognitive passwords (question-and-answer session of personal details);
Associative passwords (a series of words & associations) and
Personal Identification Numbers (PINs).
This paper investigates user-ID and user-generated passwords, the most widely-used password
mechanisms. The level of security provided by this can vary greatly, depending on the individual user’s
password design expertise and security awareness. The US Federal Information Processing Standards
(FIPS, 1985) suggest that there are several criteria that should be used to assure different levels of
password security. Password composition, for example, relates the level of a password’s security to the
size of the character set from which it has been chosen. An alpha-numeric password is therefore more
secure than one composed of letters only. Short password lifetime - i.e. changing passwords frequently
- is suggested to reduce the risk associated with undetected illicit use of a “compromised” password.
Finally, password ownership is noted as an important aspect of its security. The FIPS suggest that
individual ownership:
increases individual accountability;
reduces illicit usage;
allows establishment of system usage audit trails;
reduces the requirement for frequent password changes dues to group membership
There is indeed evidence that many users do not follow secure password construction.
DeAlvare (1988) found that once a password is chosen, a user is unlikely to change it until it has been
shown to be compromised. This research was continued in 1990 to show that, if allowed, most users
will tend to construct passwords that contain as few characters as possible. These observations cannot
be disputed, but the conclusion that these observed behaviours are due to users being inherently careless
and therefore insecure ought to be reconsidered. Security departments try to counteract users’
“inherently insecure” behaviour with system-based mechanisms such as password expiry and
construction restrictions, assuming that forcing users to comply with security measures will reduce
insecure behaviour. Again, the notion that desired behaviour can be enforced may work in a military
environment, but this fits less well with modern organisations and work practices.
The guiding principles of system security have determined the type of security problems
identified and their approach to possible solutions. The tendency is to respond to security problems by
enforcing more restrictive authentication regimes, such as:
increasing change regimes (change password once a month);
longer and more complex passwords (alpha-numeric & required length);
reduction in allowed input error rates.
Whether these mechanisms have resulted in more secure user behaviour has not been
empirically confirmed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that their effect may be the opposite of what was
intended: the more restrictive mechanisms are, the more likely it is that users will circumvent them,
resulting in behaviours which are even less secure. The reason for this apparent paradox is usability as
more restrictions in authentication mechanisms create more usability problems. Carroll (1996) pointed
out that the very characteristics which make a password more secure also make it less memorable. This
has produced efforts to identify mechanisms for generating memorable yet secure passwords (DeAlvare,
1988; Barton and Barton 1988). The impact of these recommendations seems to have been limited;
most users do not seem to be aware of them.
1.2 Usability issues in password systems
The aim of this study is to identify human and organisational factors which impact on the security and
usability of password systems. Security is defined as reducing unauthorised access to information or
systems; usability in the password domain is defined in terms of memorability and perceived
overheads. The study was conducted in two parts. In the first part of the study, a detailed questionnaire
on security and usability of password authentication systems was designed to elicit descriptions of user
behaviour and problems related to the use of passwords. The web-based questionnaire was completed
by 139 respondents, half of which were employees in Organisation A, the other half were Internet users
from around the world. The questionnaire results are reported and discussed
in Section 2. The
quantitative research seeks to identify relationships between users password memorability, frequency of
password usage, automaticity in entering a password and perceptions of the need for security levels.
The issues most frequently raised in the questionnaires were followed up with in-depth semi-structured
interviews with 30 users, 15 from Organisation A and 15 from Organisation B. Section 3 explains how
the interviews have been analysed using a qualitative method from social sciences called grounded
theory, and presents the resulting model of system and organisational factors along with their impact on
security and usability. Implications of the findings are discussed in Section 4 and recommendations
made for improving authentication processes.
2 Questionnaire study
2.1 Method
2.1.1 Participants
Further relationships were reviewed but few of any interest were found
139 responses were received, half of which were from organisation A. The other half from
organisations throughout the world. Participants were recruited via email and web interest groups
which could be argued restricted subject sampling to technologically biased respondents. It should be
noted however that respondents were varied in both computer (less than 1 year to 10 years) and
password (1 to over 10 passwords - some stating over 30 passwords) experience. For security reasons,
participants’ personal details were automatically anonymised and personal detail sections of the
questionnaire were not always completed.
2.1.1 Instruments
As there has been little previous research on this particular issue, a pilot questionnaire was
used to obtain initial quantitative and qualitative data. Although this questionnaire took a broad
approach to the subject area, it focused on password related user behaviours, in particular memorability
problems. Results from the open ended sections of the questionnaire, however, suggested that this
narrow approach was not addressing key problems with password usage as a user authentication device.
2.1.1 Procedure
The questionnaire was placed on the web and once completed was anonymised before being
automatically returned, via email, for analysis.
2.2 Results
The significant relationships observed in the study are summarised in Table 1. There is a
significant (P<0.05) correlation between “infrequently used passwords” and “frequent memory
problems” with the same password, and between “frequently used passwords” and “infrequent memory
problems”. There is also a significant (P<0.005) correlation between “have to think first” (before
password recall) and “frequent memory problems” with the same password. The opposite end of this
relationship is between “automatic” (password recall) and “infrequent memory problems”. An
interesting point is the significant (P<0.05) correlation between “desire to decrease security” and
“frequent memory problems” with the same password.
Password usage by Memory problems
Automaticity by Memory problems
Required security changes by Memory
Table 1: Mean correlation coefficients
between automaticity, memorability and
frequency of password usage
50% of respondents wrote their passwords down in one form or another. It was also found that
50% of respondents using more than one password had produced a method to construct ”related”
passwords, i.e. all or most of their passwords had a common theme or domain. In fact, this applied to
all users who answered these question - almost half left these questions blank.
The results clearly suggest that password memorability is partially reliant on frequency of use,
which produces automaticity. This would tie in with observations on encoding specificity and the
implicit vs. explicit memory models (Graf and Mandler, 1984; Graf and Schacter, 1985). Encoding
specificity suggests that to retrieve information efficiently, the form of password construction should
match the retrieval procedure; a semantically meaningful password should be retrieved semantically).
The explicit vs. implicit memory model suggests that semantically stored passwords (those that have a
meaning) are best for explicitly retrieved material (thinking about the item to be recalled). However, if
(All variables in above analysis are means for all password systems using a 2-tailed Significance using
a Spearman’s Rho test for ordinal related data)
a password is frequently used and therefore automatically (implicitly) retrieved, a structural
construction (the shape of the word or the position of keys on the keyboard) is more effective for
retrieval purposes.
The open-ended sections of the questionnaire suggested there were other factors which
influenced user behaviour or led to user problems. It was concluded that further qualitative analysis
was required to comprehensively investigate relevant issues.
3 Qualitative analysis
3.1 First-pass analysis: method
The first set of 15 semi-structured in-depth interviews lasted approx. 30 minutes and were conducted
with users in Organisation A. Respondents had varying levels of password expertise, both over period
and frequency of use. Participants were asked a series of semi-structured questions that covered issues
of password generation and recall along with more general system and organisational factors. The
interview format allowed participants to introduce new issues to the discussion that they regarded as
3.2 First-pass analysis: results
The initial analysis of the interviews and free-format answers in the questionnaire was guided by
frequency and fundamentality of the issues raised by the users. This produced 4 factors influencing
effective password usage. Problem areas for password usability were multiple passwords, password
content, users’ perceptions of security in the organisation and information sensitivity.
3.2.1 Multiple passwords
Many users have to remember multiple passwords, i.e. they have to use different passwords for different
applications and/or change password frequently because of password expiry mechanisms. A high
number of passwords reduces memorability, increases insecure work-practices (e.g. writing passwords
down) and poor password design (e.g. using password as their password), as illustrated in the following
“Constantly changing passwords results in very simple choices which are easy to
guess or break within seconds of using 'Cracker'
. Hence there is no security.”
“But basically because I was forced into changing it every month I had to write it
Many users devise their own method for beating memorability problems such as related passwords -
linking their passwords via some common element. Such methods are devised in response to password
expiry mechanisms, and by users who have to have different passwords for different applications.
Many of these users consciously implemented their own security by varying elements in these linked
passwords (e.g. tom1, tom2, tom3). However the results show that, rather than improving memorability
and security, this decreases password memorability. This has been identified as due to the within-list
interference (Wickens, 1992) of related passwords which causes users to write passwords down which
in turn reduces password security levels.
3.2.2 Password content
Password content is defined here as the character content of the password reviewed in terms of its
memorability and security. Initial results found that users’ knowledge of secure password design was
A password dictionary checker
very inadequate. This leads users to create rules and judgements on password design strategies which
are anything but secure. Words contained in the dictionary and names are the most vulnerable form of
password. These results showed that many users do not realise this:
“I mean I would have thought that if you picked something like your wife's
Christian name or something then the chances of a complete stranger guessing
********* in my case were pretty remote.”
3.2.3 Security perceptions
Analysis of the results revealed that users perceptions of security levels and potential threats was a key
element in motivating their work-practices. Without clear feedback from the organisation, users
construct their own model of security threats and importance of security. The two extracts below
illustrate users’ misconceptions in their perceptions of both organisational security and possible
“I don't think that hacking is a problem I've had no visibility of hacking that may
go on. None at all.”
“I think that security problems are more by word of mouth than computer
3.2.4 Information sensitivity
The study identified that users’ security behaviour often depends on their perceptions of the information
sensitivity. Users identified certain systems as worthy of secure password practices, whilst others were
perceived as “not important enough”. In the absence of guidance, users concluded that confidential
information about individuals (personnel files, email) was sensitive; but commercially sensitive
information, such as customer records and financial data, were often not regarded as sensitive. Some
users stated that they liked the classification of printed documents (e.g. Confidential, Not for
Circulation). This indicates that users need guidance on information sensitivity and rules for levels of
3.3 In-depth analysis: grounded theory
The initial approach to the qualitative analysis ignored a wealth of information in the data. Further
analysis using grounded theory methods (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990) enabled us
to resolve apparent contradictions and inconsistencies in users’ statements. This analysis of the
qualitative and quantitative data was then used to build a model of users’ password behaviour. Social
science methodologies have been used for some years in HCI particularly in the field of CSCW
(Suchman, 1987; Fafchamps, 1991). Unlike other social science methodologies, ‘grounded theory’
(Strauss & Corbin, 1990) provides a more focused, structured approach to research (closer in some
ways to quantitative methods) which is why it has been termed a post positivistic method (Stevenson &
Cooper, 1997). We have not found any published examples of its application to HCI problems, but
found it matched the requirements of this study for a number of reasons:-
1. This study uncovered a complex web of variables interacting to produce users’ password
behaviour. Grounded theory was able to descriptively relate these variables in a way that
enabled possible intervention points to be identified.
2. In a field where there has been little previous research, the direction of the study could be
biased by the researcher. Grounded theory enables research to be grounded in the data
obtained so that the validity of the theories produced are increased.
3. The structured format of grounded theory encourages the building of a framework and
theories that are grounded in the data which then improves the external validity of the
research conducted.
The analysis provided a step-by-step account of password usage problems and possible
intervention points. A framework of password usage was produced which was substantiated by a
further 15 in-depth interviews in organisation B. As the findings from the various studies are too
numerous to discuss in detail, we only provide a top level diagram of the model (see Figure 3) and a
description of it through a detailed walk-through (see Table 2). Items that are of particular interest in
the efficiency of password usage are also presented (Sections 3.4.1 & 3.4.2).
3.4 In-depth analysis: results
3.4.1 Security perceptions: solving apparent contradictions
Several of the interviews show users identifying one perception of their behaviour and then later stating
the opposite. Such contradictions make it hard to establish relationships between factors which
influence user behaviour. Contradictory statements could be caused by users’ being unsure of their own
descriptions, or discussing complex issues which involve several factors. The application of grounded
theory techniques for analysing the free-format statements on the questionnaires and the interview data
identified the latter as the case. An example of an apparent contradiction is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: User behaviours produced by perceptions of security levels
A) If users perceive the organisation’s general security level as low (decreased), this decreases their
perception of how sensitive the information protected is. This, in turn, increases insecure work
procedures such as password disclosure. (Well, if the information isn’t important, why make a big
fuss about keeping your password secret?”)
B) If users perceive the organisation’s general security level as high (increased) this then decreases
their overall perception of threats to the information. This, in turn, also increases insecure work
procedures such as password disclosure (“Well, security for getting into the site is so tight, there’s
no harm in writing down my password and leaving it on my desk.”)
3.4.2 Work practices: the full story
The analysis revealed the importance of compatibility between work practices and password
procedures. Organisation A forced users to have individually owned passwords for group working.
This was perceived as incompatible with working procedures whilst shared passwords for teams, with
shared information, was considered a compatible replacement (see section A in Figure 2). Further
research with users in a comparative organisation (see section B in Figure 2) revealed almost the
opposite problem and yet the same cause: Enforced group passwords for individual personal
information were passionately rejected by users, perceived as incompatible with the nature of the work
and information involved in it.
Figure 2: Users perceptions of work practices & system procedures compatibility
This analysis using the grounded theory approach has enabled detailed models of password
usability and security to be formulated (see Figure 3). Table 2 provides a rule-based version of the
model represented in Figure 3.
(A) Group work /
shared information
(B) Individual work /
private information
Figure 3: High level story-line of password usage
enforced procedures
External Factors
User Procedures
Not Meaningful
System Procedures
Multiple Passwords
System Factors
Table 2 : PASSWORD USAGE [High Level Story-line - Walkthrough]
A) ARE:-
1. Password restriction mechanisms
2. Passwords for multiple applications and multiple changes over time.
1. CONFORM with system factors to produce:-
I. Non-words
II. Words that contain unrelated elements and that are not
automatically meaningful.
I. Passwords that are totally independent and not related in
anyway to one another.
2. CIRCUMVENT system factors to produce:-
I. Meaningful words either personally or generally identifiable.
II. Related content within the password (e.g.abc123)
I. Related elements across multiple passwords. Either across
passwords for applications or across changes in passwords for a
single application or both.
A) ARE:-
1. Information’s perceived sensitivity or importance.
2. Enforced password practice so that passwords are perceived to be allocated to the
individual or the group.
1. COMPATIBLE with users perceptions to produce:-
I. Where sensitive information has a high security where there are
high perceived threats
II. Where unimportant information has a low security where there
are low perceived threats.
I. Where employees work individually with personal or sensitive
information and have individual passwords.
II. Where employees work in groups sharing information and have
group or shared passwords.
2. INCOMPATIBLE with users perceptions to produce:-
i) Where sensitive information is poorly secured with low
security levels.
ii) Where Perceived threats are also high with non-
sensitive information and low security.
i) where non-sensitive information is well secured with
high security levels. With perceived threats being high
or low.
I. Where group work with shared information has perceived
individual enforced passwords.
II. Where individual work with personal or sensitive information
has perceived group enforced passwords.
4 Discussion
This analysis has identified two main problem in password usage; password mechanisms that users
perceive as forcing them to produce behaviours that circumvent them and organisational factors that
are perceived as incompatible with working procedures. These problems are due to a lack of
communication between security departments and users - users do not understand security issues and
system departments lack an understanding of users’ perceptions, tasks and needs. Resulting perceptions
(by security departments) of users’ as ‘inherently insecure’ and of security mechanisms and procedures
(by users) as illogical are then increased, de-motivating naturally secure user behaviours. In this section
we examine the consequences of this in detail and discuss intervention points for improving
4.1 Users lack security knowledge
Parker (1992) points out that a major doctrine in password security, adopted from the military, is the
need-to-know principle. The assumption being that the more known about a security mechanism, the
easier it is to attack. Part of the defence is therefore to information only to those who “need to know”.
A similar approach to security is taken by many business organisations today: those responsible for
system security argue that explaining the rationale behind security mechanisms increases its
vulnerability. Many security departments see users as “inherently insecure” which produces a tendency
to tell users as little as possible. One clear finding from this study is that “insecure” user behaviour is
often caused by a lack of understanding. This can be seen in a number of user observations with
password content, security perceptions and information sensitivity (see 3.2).
In many organisations, system-generated passwords have been replaced by user-generated
ones. This means that the responsibility for creating secure passwords has been shifted to the users; but
the “need-to-know” policy of many security departments means that known rules for creating secure
passwords are rarely communicated to users. Many users are being asked to complete a skilled design
job without adequate training and little on-line guidance. Our data shows that, lacking basic
knowledge, users make their own judgements about which practices are secure, and these judgements
are often wildly inadequate.
The grounded theory analysis also revealed that many users confused user identification (user
ID’s) and the password sections of the authentication process. Without knowledge of the authentication
process, users assumed that these ID’s were another form of password to be secured and recalled in the
same manner. This maybe due to the fact that many user ID's are often non-words without meaning.
Even if the user ID’s are related to the users’ name, they differ in format for the varying applications
used. This in turn increases users’ perceived mental workload associated with passwords. Lack of
understanding here increases the perceived overhead, which in turn reduces users’ motivation to comply
with suggested behaviour.
Finally, users have a poor understanding of password security breaches and risks. Users
perceived threats to be low because of a lack of visible risk feedback. Users’ lack of understanding also
lead to the general misconception that password cracking was completed on a personal basis:
perceptions of threats were found to decrease as they perceived their insignificance in the system.
4.2 A lack of user-centred design in system security
This study has identified that many mechanisms designed to improve system security can in
practice decrease it. Lack of communication with users also leads to a lack of a user-centred design of
security mechanisms. Many mechanisms create overheads for users or require user behaviour which is
unworkable. It is hardly surprising to find that many will try to circumvent such mechanisms.
Change regimes are employed to reduce the impact that an undetected security breach could
have on an organisation. However, our findings suggest that change regimes reduce overall password
security. Users required to frequently change their passwords were found to be producing passwords
with less secure content and disclosing their passwords more frequently. Requiring users to have a
large number of passwords (for multiple applications and change regimes) creates serious usability
problems. Reduced memorability causes password disclosure and crackable passwords (see Section
3.2.1). Many users feel they are forced into circumventing security procedures which decreases their
security motivation. Hackers using social engineering techniques rely on a lowered security motivation
among users to breach security mechanisms.
Ultimately, a lack of user-centred design in password mechanisms forces users to circumvent
procedures. Users are aware that their behaviour is insecure and it is this awareness that decreases their
security motivation. The grounded theory model has identified that this can then lead to a spiralling
decline in users secure behaviour (“oh well my behaviours are not secure anyway so it doesn’t really
matter how lax I become.”)
4.3 Motivating users security awareness
The analysis revealed that users’ perception of security threats was motivating or de-
motivating as far as their security behaviour was concerned. A lack of organisational feedback on
security issues was also found to de-motivate users’ security awareness. However, one of the major
factors de-motivating users was a lack of user-centred design in security mechanisms.
It has been suggested by the US Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS, 1985) that
individual ownership of passwords increases accountability and decreases illicit usage of passwords,
because of the possibility of audit trailing - a by product of authentication. We found, however, that
most users are not aware that auditing of system use can be linked to passwords. Further evidence
shows that this is probably for the best, since those users who did realise this possibility circumvented
auditing by using another person’s password - not necessarily because their actions broke rules, but
“just in case, so someone else gets the blame if things go wrong”. FIPS (1985) states that shared
passwords for groups are insecure. However, our results indicate that they should be used if work is
carried out by a team. If a password mechanism is incompatible with users’ work practises, they
perceive the security mechanism as “not sensible” and will circumvent it (e.g. by disclosing it to other
group members). This can lead to a perception that all password mechanisms are “pointless”, and are
therefore circumvented.
It is important to challenge the view that users are never motivated to behave in a secure
manner. Our results show that the majority of users were security-conscious, as long as they perceive
the need for these behaviours e.g. because of obvious external threats or information sensitivity. These
findings are supported by research within Organisation B, where both physical and computer security
levels were low and security threats were evident. In this situation, users demonstrated exemplary
behaviour with their own passwords. We would argue that the “need-to-know” policy ought to be
reconsidered and users ought to be told of past or existing (attempted) breaches of security.
5 Conclusions
5.1 Increase communication between users and security experts
The technical bias towards security mechanism has produced a simplistic approach to user
authentication: restricting access to data by identification and authentication of a user. This simplistic
approach may work well in military environments, but limits usable solutions to the security problems
of modern organisations which seek to encourage work practices such as teamwork and shared
responsibility. Such organisations require support for trust and information sharing. The authoritarian
approach has also led to security departments’ reluctance to communicate with users. Informing users
about security mechanisms and threats is seen as lowering security by increasing the possibility of
information leaks. Ultimately, this has lead to a two fold problem:-
1. Users’ lack of security awareness.
2. Security departments’ lack of knowledge about users
produces security mechanisms and systems which are not
These two factors lower users’ motivation to produce secure work practices. This then reinforces
security departments’ belief that users are “inherently insecure” and leads to the introduction of stricter
mechanisms. Communication between security departments and users is therefore often restricted to
“ticking off” users caught contravening the rules. This type of relationship is not suitable for modern
distributed and networked organisations which encourage communication and collaboration. This
vicious circle needs to be broken by improving communication between security departments and users,
along with training and user-centred design of security mechanisms.
5.2 Users and password behaviour
Insecure work practices and low security motivation have been identified by information security
research (DeAlvare, 1990; Ford, 1994; Gordon, 1995) as a major problem which must be addressed.
There is, however, no identification by those same researchers as to the cause of these user related
problems. Instead, the blame has been squarely placed on the user with a lack of security motivation as
the reason. It is assumed that users naturally lack security motivation and that this state will not be
changed until they have been made aware of, or forced into completing, secure actions. This
assumption, however, suggests that humans start, as do computers, from a blank sheet that is
programmed into a certain action. The truth is that human behaviour is far more complex than simple
conditioned responses. Forcing users to complete an action, may only make them circumvent the whole
procedure giving the appearance that they have completed that action.
The results from this study suggest that if users show insecure security behaviours and have a
low security motivation, it is often due to the security mechanisms employed. These mechanisms have
not been assessed in terms of their compatibility with users’ work practices, organisational strategy and
usability - factors which we would expect to be considered during the design and implementation of
most systems today. Designers of security mechanisms must realise that human and organisational
factors are a key issue in security design. Social engineers understand this and have used it to their
advantage, increasing system security breaches. Unless security departments understand how their
mechanisms are used in practice, they will always be doomed to produce mechanisms which look
secure on paper but fail in practice.
5.3 Recommendations
The construction of secure passwords can be assisted by the recommendations given below under
“content” and “password relationships”. Users’ motivation to apply these relies on the
recommendations set out in “security perceptions” and “work practices”.
Password Content
Give on-line instruction and training on how to construct usable/secure passwords. This will
show users that they need not circumvent security mechanisms in order to construct
memorable passwords.
Give on-line feedback to users on what constitutes an insecure password. This will hopefully
aid in users’ knowledge of what not to use in their password design procedures.
Password Relationships between Multiple Passwords
Multiple passwords decrease overall security and memorability which in turn increases users’
If multiple passwords have to be used, a maximum of 4 or 5 is recommended to reach the
extent of most users’ memory abilities for totally different multiple passwords. This number
is reduced if passwords are used infrequently.
If more passwords are needed, then users should be advised that they can join the passwords
(produce several passwords that have related content) to reduce the number. They should
also be advised that this could cause memory interference problems unless joint passwords
are identical which will increase memorability and security (by reducing password
disclosure). A possible solution could be presented in a physical format with smart card
technology giving a second barrier of security which could be used for various systems.
Security Perceptions
Give on-line feedback to users of how crackable their password is. This will identify for
users the importance of constructing secure passwords and help them to identify those more
highly crackable.
Relay to users the possible threats to the organisations system and information. This will
increase the users’ concept of perceived threats and thus the need for security measures. This
measure is especially necessary on sites where security is high and the site is isolated. Users
perception of threats to security is especially low under these conditions.
State the role that password security plays in combating perceived threats.
Make explicit the level of sensitivity that different information has. This will reduce the
degree of arbitrary judgements made by users.
State how security levels relate to information sensitivity. This will indicate how well the
security conforms to organisational procedures.
Work Practices
Relate enforced password practice to organisational procedures. This will mean that users
will identify how relevant security is to their working practices with shared information
having shared passwords and individual work having personal passwords. If this is not to be
adhered to, reasons must be given to the user as to why it is necessary for the security
mechanisms to circumvent working procedures.
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... Traditional fields of research include improving privacy policies [52,58] and password usability [1,7,60]. Particularly with increasing amounts of data being collected and used, studies have also started to investigate the design of supporting users in their struggle to make sense of data [68] by means of adequate and flexible visualizations [30,51]. ...
In both data protection law and research of usable privacy, awareness and control over the collection and use of personal data are understood to be cornerstones of digital sovereignty. For example, the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provides data subjects with the right to access data collected by organisations but remains unclear on the concrete process design. However, the design of data subject rights is crucial when it comes to the ability of customers to exercise their right and fulfil regulatory aims such as transparency. To learn more about user needs in implementing the right to access as per GDPR, we conducted a two-step study. First, we defined a five-phase user experience journey regarding the right to access: finding, authentication, request, access and data use. Second, and based on this model, 59 participants exercised their right to access and evaluated the usability of each phase. Drawing on 422 datasets spanning 139 organisations, our results show several interdependencies of process design and user satisfaction. Thereby, our insights inform the community of usable privacy and especially the design of the right to access with a first, yet robust, empirical body.
... Despite various usability and security issues, conventional passwords remain the most used method of internet authentication [1][2][3]. Passwords are inconvenient for users since they must be remembered and preferably, be lengthy and distinct. As a result, it should come as no surprise that many users choose weak passwords that they reuse across several platforms [4][5], resulting in account hack and personal data breaches. ...
... Standard password formulation guidelines primarily concentrate on security goals, but users are hesitant to spend sufficient effort in developing passwords that meet these requirements [16]. Numerous studies have been done that if password policies are too strict, users will somehow circumvent the policies which eventually lead to not increasing the security of the system, but also greatly reduce security [17,18]. In a study, the balance between password power and productivity at work was done. ...
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Textual passwords are one of the most common methods of authentication and an important factor in systems security. Knowing the correct distribution of users’ passwords can play an important role in defining password policies and preventing various attacks. Culture and language can affect the pattern of users’ password selection and consequently, influence the vulnerability of passwords to guessing attacks. Therefore, knowing the distribution of English users’ passwords may not be appropriate for the security analysis of non-English users’ passwords. The main purpose of this paper is to analyze the passwords of Iranian users and investigating their differences from English-speaking users. The paper also examines the existence of Zipf’s law on Iranian passwords as the most well-known distribution for passwords. Password analysis of Iranian users shows that the popular password length between Iranian users and users of other countries is not much different, but in terms of the combination of characters used in the passwords, Iranian users are more inclined to use numeric passwords while English language users are more inclined to use passwords made up of alphabet. In this paper, Zipf’s law is reviewed on five datasets of Iranian users’ passwords using three different approaches including PDF, PDF with removing unpopular passwords and, CDF. Among these methods, in the CDF method, the passwords best matched with a Zipf’s law distribution between 0.02 and 0.07. Finally, the robustness of Iranians’ passwords to statistical guessing attacks has been measured and it is concluded that the passwords of Iranian users are more vulnerable to guessing attacks than English language users.
... Although prior work has shown that password-composition policies requiring more characters or more character classes can improve resistance to automated guessing attacks, many passwords that meet common policies remain vulnerable [22,42]. Furthermore, strict policies can frustrate users, reduce their productivity, and lead users to write their passwords down [1,18,35]. ...
... "It just drives people bananas and they don't pick good passwords no matter what you do" -William Burr [4] Unfortunately, those original, draconian rules were widely embraced and are still commonly enforced nowadays since many organizations can be slow in reconsidering previously made decisions and established regulations. Indeed, the link between password composition policies and users' behavior has been an active research topic since [5]. Negative effects of complicated policies on the actual resulting security were also discussed in an emerging body of literature [6,7,8]. ...
... Besides seeking to improve privacy policies [21,22] and password usability [3], usable privacy studies also target supporting and fostering the understanding of data by means of adequate and flexible visualizations [20]. For example, Angulo et al. built a data tracking tool that displayed an overview of a user's data disclosures to different online service providers and provided them with the collected data about them [4]. ...
Conference Paper
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Supporting users with secure password creation is a well-explored yet unresolved research topic. A promising intervention is the password meter, i.e. providing feedback on the user's password strength as and when it is created. However, findings related to the password meter's effectiveness are varied. An extensive literature review revealed that, besides password feedback, effective password meters often include: (a) feedback nudges to encourage stronger passwords choices and (b) additional guidance. A between-subjects study was carried out with 645 participants to test nine variations of password meters with different types of feedback nudges exploiting various heuristics and norms. This study explored differences in resulting passwords: (1) actual strength, (2) memorability, and (3) user perceptions. The study revealed that password feedback, in combination with a feedback nudge and additional guidance, labelled a hybrid password meter, was generally more efficacious than either intervention on its own, on all three metrics. Yet, the type of feedback nudge targeting either the person, the password creation task, or the social context, did not seem to matter much. The meters were nearly equally efficacious. Future work should explore the long-term effects of hybrid password meters in real-life settings to confirm the external validity of these findings.
Conference Paper
Exposure of passwords for authentication and access management is a ubiquitous and constant threat. Yet, reliable solutions, including multi-factor authentication (MFA), face issues with widespread adoption. Prior research shows that making MFA mandatory helps with tool adoption but is detrimental to users' mental models and leads to security-avoidance behavior. To explore feasible solutions, we implemented text-and video-based risk communication strategies to evaluate if either mode of risk communication was useful. We sought to explore users' technical biases to further examine the mental models that are associated with safer security habits. Our study of N = 620 participants found that users are aware of frequent security attacks, including phishing. We found that text-and video-based communication is often useful when information is aligned with individual actions and their consequences, which can range from benign to catastrophic. Shorter mental-model-aligned video snippets piqued user interest in MFA. On the other hand, detailed risk communication videos or textual descriptions improved users' understanding of MFA and the potential risks of non-usage. Our study indicates that, beyond usability and comprehensive education, risk communication offers the potential to increase MFA adoption.
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Computer security is a growing concern in research, development, marketing, and most other areas of everyday life. The first and foremost task in computer security is to prevent unauthorized access to systems. This report tells how ''crackers'' (computer wizards who use their talents for illegal and destructive purposes) obtain access to computer systems and gives specific advice on how to prevent them from doing it. 11 refs., 5 tabs.
A major problem in computer security is intrusion into systems due to compromised authentication procedures. This paper focuses on the most commonly used authentication procedure--use of passwords. We have developed a framework for a methodology to estimate the guessability of passwords. We assume that passwords are usually based on a simple rule. If someone discovers one of a series of rule-based passwords, it is easier to guess other passwords. The framework we propose is that computer security experts can conduct guessability studies on a large number of passwords which are candidates for assignment to users. People who attempt to guess what a password is can be provided with cues, such as what a password for another account in the system is or a nickname. Hit rates (the percentage of passwords correctly guessed within a limited number of attempts) can then be obtained. This method can be used to develop metrics for guessability of classes of passwords. A system manager might utilize results of guessability studies by encouraging users to avoid choosing passwords which are closely associated with account names or which have been shown to be highly vulnerable to guessing, or by not assigning passwords which are from vulnerable classes of passwords. A pilot study confirmed the feasibility of this framework. Participants were given 20 attempts to guess an eight-character password which was either a common English word or two unrelated words joined by a control character (eight characters in all). The common English word was vulnerable to guessing, but only when cues about this word were provided. Participants never guessed the other password, however, even when cues were provided. The results not only demonstrate feasibility of our framework, but also suggest guidelines for selecting passwords which are less likely to result in compromised authentication procedures. 6 refs., 1 fig.