Password versus passphrase: Which one should you choose?

Kfir Yeshayahu

January 30, 2024

  • # Biometric Security
  • # Account Protection
  • # Phishing Protection

Most activities you perform online require an account — whether you’re sending emails, shopping on your favorite retailer’s website, or chatting on social media with friends. The key to keeping these accounts safe lies in how you approach password security. Choosing a robust password is no easy feat and can often be the difference between thwarting cyber criminals and having your information stolen.

Fortunately, there's a more secure option now: passphrases.

In this guide, we'll look at the differences between passwords versus passphrases and provide some actionable insights to help you make informed decisions about your login security.

What is a password?

A password is a familiar security measure, typically using a combination of letters (uppercase and lowercase), numbers, and special characters. The goal of a password is to create a digital barrier that’s difficult for attackers to guess or breach.

The strength of a password often relies on its complexity and randomness. Creating and remembering a strong password that combines these elements can be challenging for many users, leading some individuals to adopt more straightforward and less secure passwords.

What is a passphrase?

While you can use a passphrase to access online accounts or files just like you would a password, the two aren’t the same. A passphrase is usually more than 20 characters long and contains a sequence of four or more words, each with at least four letters. You can string these words together with or without spaces. Some passphrase examples include “tablechairbookcandle” or “table chair book candle.”

The combination of length and easy-to-remember words makes passphrases user-friendly for the creator and challenging for any hacker. 

Key differences between passphrases and passwords

While passwords are a staple in digital security, passphrases have recently emerged as a robust alternative. Here are some of the critical differences between passphrases and passwords:

  • Length: Passphrases are generally longer, often exceeding 20 characters. Their length and complex mix of characters, numbers, and letters make them more challenging to crack than passwords.

  • Memorability: Despite their length, passphrases are often easier to remember as they use common words and phrases. They can also form mnemonic devices, which help users recall their complex sequences through familiar or visual associations.

  • Security against attacks: Passwords are often more vulnerable, especially if they don’t contain a complex variety of characters and symbols. Meanwhile, the length and structure of passphrases make them more challenging to break down through brute force attacks (where hackers try numerous password combinations to crack the code) and dictionary attacks (where hackers test all possible words or combinations from a dictionary to determine a password).

Why should you use a passphrase and not a password?

Passphrases offer a more robust defense against cyber attacks than traditional passwords. As cyber threats become increasingly sophisticated and challenging to discern, passphrases are becoming all the more popular to fight these threats. Here are some reasons why you should use passphrases:

  • Improved entropy: Passphrases are more random and longer than passwords, generating higher “entropy” — aka unpredictability. If they aren’t predictable, hackers will have a tougher time cracking them.

  • Memorability and security: Because they use simple phrases and words, passphrases are easier to remember than complex passwords. When people use this method, they’re less likely to resort to simple, vulnerable passwords that are easy to decipher. 

  • Resilience against attacks: Passphrases are tougher against dictionary and brute force attacks. Most hackers can crack passwords like “123456” or “password” almost instantly, whereas a well-crafted passphrase can withstand these attacks more effectively.

  • Prevention of credential stuffing: Using unique passphrases for different accounts helps mitigate the risk of credential stuffing, where hackers use stolen credentials across multiple platforms to try to gain access to a user’s accounts.

  • FBI advisory: The FBI recommends using unique passphrases for sensitive accounts, emphasizing their effectiveness in protecting personal and financial information.

Crafting effective passphrases

Creating a solid passphrase can enhance your online security by keeping hackers out of your accounts. A good passphrase should balance randomness, length, and memorability. Here are a few strategies for crafting an effective passphrase:

  1. Use unique word combinations: Opt for unusual combinations of words that aren't typically associated, like “novel green past spoon.” This unpredictability increases the passphrase's resistance to attacks.

  2. Incorporate variety: Mix uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters — for example, “n0vel gr33n p@st $poon.” This variety strengthens the passphrase against brute force attacks and aligns with many sites' security requirements.

  3. Avoid personal data: Attackers can easily guess personal information like birth dates or pet names. Instead of using these, choose words that have no direct connection to you.

  4. Find an optimal length: A longer passphrase generally offers more security, with no one-size-fits-all length. Consider a phrase that is easy for you to remember but hard for others to guess.

  5. Use mnemonic devices: Use a phrase that forms a memorable image or story in your mind, aiding in recall without compromising security or requiring that you write it down.

Securing passphrases: 6 best storing practices

Safeguarding your passphrases can help you keep them and your data safe from prying eyes. Here's an in-depth guide to storing passphrases securely:

1. Rethink browser storage

While you may find it convenient to store credentials in your web browser, this practice is risky. Browsers can be vulnerable to hacks, potentially exposing your sensitive data. Instead, consider more secure alternatives, like password managers.

2. Regularly update and audit your phrases

Regularly review and update your passphrases, especially for accounts holding sensitive information, like patient profiles or bank logins. This habit counters the potential that cyber criminals will crack your password over time.

3. Use backup strategies

Maintain a secure backup of your passphrases. This could be an encrypted digital file stored in a secure location or a physical copy in a safe place. Remember, the key is to have your passphrase accessible but out of reach of unauthorized individuals.

4. Leverage password managers

Password managers store and manage your passwords in a digital vault using advanced encryption methods and a master password to the vault. For optimal protection, choose a manager that offers strong safety attributes and the ability to add your own layers of security — like biometric authentication, which requires physical features like your fingerprint or facial scan to confirm your identity. Since your master password is the key to accessing your entire vault, adding these layers of protection to your login process can make it harder for any hackers to gain entry, even if they decipher your master password.

5. Stay alert for phishing scams

Keep watch for phishing attempts. In these attacks, scammers will try to dupe you into believing they’re a trustworthy entity and coerce you into revealing sensitive information or opening a seemingly legitimate link that steals your data. Always verify the authenticity of websites and emails before entering your passphrase, and educate yourself on the latest phishing tactics to stay ahead of potential attackers and avoid fraud and identity theft.

6. Use multi-factor authentication (MFA)

Combine your passphrase with MFA where possible. This adds extra layers of security to your logins, requiring identification like an app code, text message code, or biometric face scan. Using these will significantly reduce the risk of unauthorized access — even if a hacker gets hold of your passphrase.

Securing your digital life with IronVest

Understanding the difference between passwords and passphrases is important for making safe login choices and improving your security. While passphrases offer enhanced security and memorability, their effective creation and storage are equally important.

IronVest is a reliable ally for login security, offering innovative tools to create, secure, and autofill your passwords and passphrases — all with the added protection of biometric technology. Protect your digital presence and embrace the peace of mind that comes with IronVest's cutting-edge solutions. Discover IronVest today and take a significant step toward securing your online world.

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