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Do XKCD Passwords Work?

You'll always see comments on web forums, social sites, blog posts, and emails about "XKCD passwords". This is of course referring to the XKCD comic by Randall Munroe describing what he thinks is the best password generator:

What no one has bothered asking, is if this actually works.

Lorrie Faith Cranor, director of the Carnegie Mellon Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University, a member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation Board of Directors, and Professor in the School of Computer Science and the Engineering and Public Policy Department at Carnegie Mellon University, did ask this question. In fact, she studied to the point, that she gave a TED talk on the subject. The transcript of her talk can be found here. Here are the relevant bits (emphasis mine):

Now another approach to better passwords, perhaps, is to use pass phrases instead of passwords. So this was an xkcd cartoon from a couple of years ago, and the cartoonist suggests that we should all use pass phrases, and if you look at the second row of this cartoon, you can see the cartoonist is suggesting that the pass phrase "correct horse battery staple" would be a very strong pass phrase and something really easy to remember. He says, in fact, you've already remembered it. And so we decided to do a research study to find out whether this was true or not. In fact, everybody who I talk to, who I mention I'm doing password research, they point out this cartoon. "Oh, have you seen it? That xkcd. Correct horse battery staple." So we did the research study to see what would actually happen.

So in our study, we used Mechanical Turk again, and we had the computer pick the random words in the pass phrase. Now the reason we did this is that humans are not very good at picking random words. If we asked a human to do it, they would pick things that were not very random. So we tried a few different conditions. In one condition, the computer picked from a dictionary of the very common words in the English language, and so you'd get pass phrases like "try there three come." And we looked at that, and we said, "Well, that doesn't really seem very memorable." So then we tried picking words that came from specific parts of speech, so how about noun-verb-adjective-noun. That comes up with something that's sort of sentence-like. So you can get a pass phrase like "plan builds sure power" or "end determines red drug." And these seemed a little bit more memorable, and maybe people would like those a little bit better. We wanted to compare them with passwords, and so we had the computer pick random passwords, and these were nice and short, but as you can see, they don't really look very memorable. And then we decided to try something called a pronounceable password. So here the computer picks random syllables and puts them together so you have something sort of pronounceable, like "tufritvi" and "vadasabi." That one kind of rolls off your tongue. So these were random passwords that were generated by our computer.

So what we found in this study was that, surprisingly, pass phrases were not actually all that good. People were not really better at remembering the pass phrases than these random passwords, and because the pass phrases are longer, they took longer to type and people made more errors while typing them in. So it's not really a clear win for pass phrases. Sorry, all of you xkcd fans. On the other hand, we did find that pronounceable passwords worked surprisingly well, and so we actually are doing some more research to see if we can make that approach work even better. So one of the problems with some of the studies that we've done is that because they're all done using Mechanical Turk, these are not people's real passwords. They're the passwords that they created or the computer created for them for our study. And we wanted to know whether people would actually behave the same way with their real passwords.

So, in her research, XKCD passwords really didn't work out that well. They are longer in length, so they take longer to type, which increases the chance for error, and people are no better at remembering on XKCD passphrase, than they are a short string of random characters.

To me, this is unsurprising. If you look at the history of my blogging on passwords, you'll find that I continually advocate true random events to build your passwords, maximizing entropy. In my last post, I even blogged two shell functions that you can use to build XKCD passwords, and "monkey passwords" (monkeys generating passwords by banging away at a keyboard). Both target 80-bits of entropy in the generation. Check out the lengths:

$ gen-monkey-pass 9
cxqwtw63taxdr3zn	uaq4tbt43japmm2q	mptwrxhhb486yfuv
-cb73b9-kgzhmww3	s45t3x6r9smw-7yr	hjkgzkha-qup4gh4
34c5rg4ksw-aprvk	uug-2vq7pfze6dnp	s4qx4eazbnrd2pqe

$ gen-xkcd-pass 9
sorestdanklyAlbanyluckyRamonaFowler   (sorest dankly Albany lucky Ramona Fowler)
towsscareslaudedrobinawardsrenal      (tows scares lauded robin awards renal)
thinkhazelsvealjuggedagingscareen     (think hazels veal jugged agings careen)
tarotpapawsNolanpacketAvonwiped       (tarot papaws Nolan packet Avon wiped)
surgesakimbohardercruelArjunablinds   (surges akimbo harder cruel Arjuna blinds)
amountlopsedgemeaslyCannoninseam      (amount lops edge measly Cannon inseam)
EssexIzmirwizesPattygroutszodiac      (Essex Izmir wizes Patty grouts zodiac)
hoursmailedslamsvowedallowspar        (hours mailed slams vowed allow spar)
AfghanNigelnutriadillmoldertrolly     (Afghan Nigel nutria dill molder trolly)

XKCD passwords average 32 characters to achieve 80-bits of entropy, compared to 16 characters that "monkey passwords" produce. And, according to the research done by Lorrie, people won't necessarily recall XKCD passwords any easier than "monkey passwords". So, if that's the case, then what's the point? Why bother? Why not just create "monkey passwords", and use a password manager?

Exactly. It's 2015. There are password managers for your browser, all versions of every desktop operating system, command-line based utilities for servers, and even apps for your smartphone. There are plenty of "cloud" synchronization services to make sure each instance is up-to-date. At this point, your passwords should:

  • Contain at least 80-bits of entropy.
  • Be truly random generated (no influence from you).
  • Be unique for each and every account.
  • Be protected with two-factor authentication, where available.
  • Be stored in a password manager, that is easily accessible.

You'll remember the ones you type in frequently, and you'll memorize them quickly. The others are stored for safe keeping, should you need to recall them.

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