Microsoft is finally catching on to a maxim that security experts have almost universally accepted for years: periodic password changes are likely to do more harm than good.
In a largely overlooked post published late last month, Microsoft said it was removing periodic password changes from the security baseline settings it recommends for customers and auditors.
After decades of Microsoft recommending passwords be changed regularly, Microsoft employee Aaron Margosis said the requirement is an “ancient and obsolete mitigation of very low value.”
The change of heart is largely the result of research that shows passwords are most prone to cracking when they’re easy for end users to remember, such as when they use a name or phrase from a favorite movie or book. Over the past decade, hackers have mined real-world password breaches to assemble dictionaries of millions of words. Combined with super-fast graphics cards, the hackers can make huge numbers of guesses in off-line attacks, which occur when they steal the cryptographically scrambled hashes that represent the plaintext user passwords.
Even when users attempt to obfuscate their easy-to-remember passwords—say by adding letters or symbols to the words, or by substituting 0’s for the o’s or 1’s for l’s—hackers can use programming rules that modify the dictionary entries. As a result, those measures provide little protection against modern cracking techniques.
Researchers have increasingly come to the consensus that the best passwords are at least 11 characters long, randomly generated, and made up of upper- and lower-case letters, symbols (such as a %, *, or >), and numbers. Those traits make them especially hard for most people to remember. The same researchers have warned that mandating password changes every 30, 60, or 90 days—or any other period—can be harmful for a host of reasons. Chief among them, the requirements encourage end users to choose weaker passwords than they otherwise would. A password that had been “[email protected]$$w0rd1” becomes “[email protected]$$w0rd2” and so on. At the same time, the mandatory changes provide little security benefit, since passwords should be changed immediately in the event of a real breach rather than after a set amount of time prescribed by a policy.
Despite the growing consensus among researchers, Microsoft and most other large organizations have been unwilling to speak out against periodic password changes. One of the notable exceptions was in 2016, when Lorrie Cranor, then the Federal Trade Commission’s chief technologist, called out the advice given by her own employer. Now, almost three years later, Cranor has company.
In last month’s blog post, Microsoft’s Margosis wrote:
There’s no question that the state of password security is problematic and has been for a long time. When humans pick their own passwords, too often they are easy to guess or predict. When humans are assigned or forced to create passwords that are hard to remember, too often they’ll write them down where others can see them. When humans are forced to change their passwords, too often they’ll make a small and predictable alteration to their existing passwords and/or forget their new passwords. When passwords or their corresponding hashes are stolen, it can be difficult at best to detect or restrict their unauthorized use.
Recent scientific research calls into question the value of many long-standing password-security practices, such as password expiration policies, and points instead to better alternatives such as enforcing banned-password lists (a great example being Azure AD password protection) and multi-factor authentication. While we recommend these alternatives, they cannot be expressed or enforced with our recommended security configuration baselines, which are built on Windows’ built-in Group Policy settings and cannot include customer-specific values.
Periodic password expiration is a defense only against the probability that a password (or hash) will be stolen during its validity interval and will be used by an unauthorized entity. If a password is never stolen, there’s no need to expire it. And if you have evidence that a password has been stolen, you would presumably act immediately rather than wait for expiration to fix the problem.
If it’s a given that a password is likely to be stolen, how many days is an acceptable length of time to continue to allow the thief to use that stolen password? The Windows default is 42 days. Doesn’t that seem like a ridiculously long time? Well, it is, and yet our current baseline says 60 days—and used to say 90 days—because forcing frequent expiration introduces its own problems. And if it’s not a given that passwords will be stolen, you acquire those problems for no benefit. Further, if your users are the kind who are willing to answer surveys in the parking lot that exchange a candy bar for their passwords, no password expiration policy will help you.
Margosis was clear that the changes in no way affect recommended minimum password length, history, or complexity. And, as he also pointed out, Microsoft continues to urge people to use multifactor authentication.
The changes to Microsoft’s security baseline settings won’t change the defaults included in Windows server versions, which Margosis said continue to be 42 days, less than even the 60 days suggested in the old baseline settings. Still, the baseline change is likely to give employees ammunition when advocating for changes inside their own organizations. Jeremi Gosney, a password security expert and the founder and CEO of Terahash, said it’s also likely to help companies push back against auditors, who often find companies out of compliance unless they have enacted password changes within a set amount of time.
“Microsoft officially jumping into the fight against mandatory password changes,” Gosney said, “is going to give companies even more leverage against Big Compliance.”