To protect your digital life, you’ll need a password manager

The digital world is a dangerous place, so let us show you how to stay safe

Signing up for a website is easy. Nowadays, your username is usually your email address. And your password is the same password you use for every website on the Internet.

Not so fast.

Using the same password for everything means a hacker only needs to crack a single password, instead of dozens, to access all of your online information.

Your online identity depends on the security of that one password, and it isn't even that good. It's memorable, but a hacker could crack it easily.

This is why you need a password manager.

[Image source: Freepik]

What is a password manager?

Password managers remember passwords for you. They also remember the websites where you use the passwords. The second feature is useful when you're managing dozens (hundreds?) of passwords. Some of you have more than one account with a website (cough*Google*cough). Password managers can help to keep this sign-in info organised.

Browsers have had this feature for a long time. So have operating systems. But if you use multiple browsers or multiple operating systems, then we have to resort to pen and paper.

That's a thing of the past. Over the last few years, we've seen the introduction of password managers that can be used across operating systems and across browsers. Across all devices.

These third-party, cross-platform password managers have features that go above and beyond the basic features of those old-school password managers.

For example, when a website asks you for a password, you don't have to come up with it on your own. A password manager like Lastpass can generate one for you.

Lastpass can tailor the password to the site's password policy (has to contain one number, one capital letter, etc), and generate a password of any length you specify.

Randomly generating strong passwords that fit with a site's password policy is a basic and powerful feature for the current crop of password managers.

[Image source: Freepik]

Why should I use a password manager?

An easy-to-memorise password is easy to crack. In the recent Ashley Madison hack, the top two passwords for users were "123456" and "password." Passfault, a site that "identifies patterns in passwords," predicts it would take less than a day to crack either one of them.

These passwords can also be found in the top five passwords in the 2011 Sony hack and the hack of the Gawker website the same year.

We know you'd never use passwords like that. We just wanted to point out that a good password is hard to memorise. I used a password manager called Dashlane to randomly generate a password (y7IS8#JNDLb) and ran it through Passfault. Time to crack: two years, six months. Time to memorise: Forget it, write it down.

Bottom line: a memorable password is a weak password. Ensuring that all of your passwords are strong ones will take a lot of paper and it could get messy. Otherwise, you could use a password manager.

[Image source: Flickr]

What password manager should I use?

There are many affordable password managers out there. PC Magazine's list of best free password managers for 2015 is worth a look, and earlier this year Lifehacker published Five Best Password Managers, rated by their own users. Lastpass tops both of these lists.

I've been using Lastpass for years. And it's served me well. It was my introduction to this new generation of password managers. Generating a new password is easy. Storing and recalling a password is easy.

The problem is, it doesn't handle mobile integration very well. Say you want to sign in to the Coursera app on your iPad Mini. You'd have to navigate away from the Coursera app to the Lastpass app, search for your password and copy it to the clipboard (after logging into your Lastpass account and searching for Coursera). Navigate back to Coursera and paste the password into the password box. Confused? We don't blame you.

I found 1Password to handle this same scenario better than Lastpass. A 1Password icon appears in the password box. Clicking on that icon prompts me for my master password. I can do everything I need to do without leaving the Coursera login screen. Simple.

Lastpass is subscription based, it costs US$1 a month. 1Password costs a one-time fee of US$49.99 for a Windows or Mac license or US$69.99 for both Windows and Mac. Both offer a 30-day free trial. If you purchase, there's a 30-day full refund guarantee.

[Image source: Flickr]

Are there any downsides to a password manager?

Your password is only as good as the site's password policy. If the site restricts the use of character types (say, symbols) in generating a password, or restricts password length, your account is going to be less safe. The best thing you can do here is to generate a random password based on accepted character types and not reuse that password anywhere else.

[Image source: Flickr]