Password Haystacks

The following is a copy and paste from the Password Haystacks page at

There is an article about this in the January 2012 edition of Consumer Reports, its been mentioned in Time Magazine, and featured on an ABC station in LA.
Give it a try, its not hard to come up with an easy to remember password that is difficult to guess. I used ;realize#0 in the below example.

Gibson Research Corporation
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Haystack Logo
… and how well hidden is YOUR needle?
Every password you use
can be thought of as a needle hiding in a haystack. After all searches of common
passwords and dictionaries have failed, an attacker must resort to a “brute force”
search – ultimately trying every possible combination of letters, numbers and then symbols until the combination
you chose, is discovered.
If every possible password is tried, sooner or later yours will be found. The question is: Will that be too soon . . . or enough later?
This interactive brute force search space calculator allows you to experiment with
password length and composition to develop an accurate and quantified sense for the
safety of using passwords that can only be found through exhaustive search. Please see the discussion below for additional information.
The Password Haystack Concept in 150 Seconds
Los Angeles’ KABC-TV produced a terrific & succinct two
and a half minute explanation of the Password Haystacks
Click this link to view their quick introduction
GRC’s Interactive Brute Force Password “Search Space” Calculator (NOTHING you do here ever leaves your browser. What happens here, stays here.) class0
No Uppercase
7 Lowercase
1 Digit
2 Symbols
10 Characters
Enter and edit your test passwords in the field above while viewing the analysis below.
Brute Force Search Space Analysis:
Search Space Depth (Alphabet):
26+10+33 = 69
Search Space Length (Characters):
10 characters
Exact Search Space Size (Count):
(count of all possible passwords
with this alphabet size and up
to this password’s length)
Search Space Size (as a power of 10):
2.48 x 1018
Time Required to Exhaustively Search this Password’s Space:
Online Attack Scenario:
(Assuming one thousand guesses per second)
7.89 hundred thousand centuries
Offline Fast Attack Scenario:
(Assuming one hundred billion guesses per second)
9.47 months
Massive Cracking Array Scenario:
(Assuming one hundred trillion guesses per second)
6.89 hours
Note that typical attacks will be online password guessing
limited to, at most, a few hundred guesses per second.
(The Haystack Calculator has been viewed 679,637 times since its publication.) ConsumerReportsLogo
The prestigious “
Consumer Reports
” has also picked up on the
simplicity and power of the “
Password Haystacks
” concept. HI!
IMPORTANT!!! What this calculator is NOT . . .
It is NOT a “Password Strength Meter.”
Since it could be easily confused for one, it is very important for you to understand what it is, and what it isn’t:
The #1 most commonly used password is “123456”, and the 4th most common is “Password.”
So any password attacker and cracker would try those two passwords immediately. Yet
the Search Space Calculator above shows the time to search for those two passwords
online (assuming a very fast online rate of 1,000 guesses per second) as 18.52 minutes
and 17.33 centuries respectively! If “123456” is the first password that’s guessed,
that wouldn’t take 18.52 minutes. And no password cracker would wait 17.33 centuries before checking to see whether “Password” is the magic phrase. Okay. So what IS the “Search Space Calculator” ?
This calculator is designed to help users understand how many passwords can be created
from different combinations of character sets (lowercase only, mixed case, with or
without digits and special characters, etc.) and password lengths. The calculator
then puts the resulting large numbers (with lots of digits or large powers of ten) into a real world context of the time that would be
required (assuming differing search speeds) to exhaustively search every password up through that length, assuming the use of the chosen alphabet. How can I apply this to my daily life?
Answering that question is the reason this page exists. The whole point of using padded passwords is to adopt a much more
you-friendly approach to password design. On June 1st, Leo Laporte and I recorded our weekly
Security Now! podcast
as part of
(This Week in Tech) audio and video podcasting network. You may download a shortened,
37-minute, excerpted version presenting the padded password and Haystack calculator concepts:

37 minute, high-quality, 64kbps MP3 audio file
, 17.9 MB

37 minute, lower-quality, 16kbps MP3 audio file
, 4.47 MB
The main concept can be understood by answering this question: Which of the following two passwords is stronger,
more secure, and more difficult to crack?
You probably know this is a trick question, but the answer is: Despite the fact that the first password is HUGELY easier to use and more memorable, it is also the stronger of the two
! In fact, since it is one character longer and contains uppercase, lowercase, a
number and special characters, that first password would take an attacker approximately 95 times longer to find by searching
than the second impossible-to-remember-or-type password!
If you are mathematically inclined, or if you have some security knowledge and training,
you may be familiar with the idea of the “entropy” or the randomness and unpredictability of data. If so, you’ll have noticed that the first, stronger password has much less entropy
than the second (weaker) password. Virtually everyone has always believed or been told that passwords derived their strength from having “high entropy”. But as we
see now, when the only available attack is guessing, that long-standing common wisdom . . . is . . . not . . . correct!
But wouldn’t something like “D0g” be in a dictionary, even with the ‘o’ being a zero?
Sure, it might be. But that doesn’t matter, because the attacker is totally blind to the way your passwords look. The old expression
“Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades” applies here. The only thing an attacker can
know is whether a password guess was an
exact match . . . or not. The attacker doesn’t know how long the password is, nor anything
about what it might look like. So after exhausting all of the standard password
cracking lists, databases and dictionaries, the attacker has no option other than
to either give up and move on to someone else, or start guessing every possible password. And here’s the key insight of this page, and “Password Padding”: Once an exhaustive password search begins,
the most important factor is password length!
The password doesn’t need to have “complex length”, because “simple length” is just as unknown to the attacker and
must be searched for
, just the same.
“Simple length”, which is easily created by padding an easily memorized password with equally
easy to remember (and enter) padding
creates unbreakable passwords that are also easy to use.
And note that simple padding also defeats all dictionary lookups, since even the otherwise weak phrase “Password”,
once it is padded
with additional characters of any sort, will not match a standard password guess of just “Password.”
One Important Final Note
The example with “D0g…………………” should not be taken literally because if everyone began padding their passwords with simple dots, attackers would soon start adding dots to their guesses to bypass the need for full searching through unknown
padding. Instead, YOU should invent your own personal padding policy
. You could put some padding in front, and/or interspersed through the phrase, and/or
add some more to the end. You could put some characters at the beginning, padding
in the middle, and more characters at the end. And also mix-up the padding characters by using simple memorable character pictures like “
<->” or “[*]” or “^-^” . . . but do invent your own!
If you make the result long and memorable, you’ll have super-strong passwords that are also easy to use!
Common Questions & Answers
If only password length matters, why does the “Haystack Calculator” change when my test passwords are all lowercase or have all kinds of characters? A:
The use of every type of character forces the attacker to search through the largest
possible space. We must always assume that an attacker is as smart as possible (and
most are). So, knowing that 41.69% of all passwords consist of only lowercase alphabetic
characters, a smart attacker who is forced to resort to a brute force search won’t initially bother spending time guessing passwords that contain uppercase, digits
and symbols. Only after an all lowercase search out to some length has failed will
an attacker decide that the unknown target password must contain additional types of characters.
So, in essence, by deliberately using at least one of each type of character, we are forcing
the attacker to search the largest possible password space, because our password won’t
ever be found in any of the smaller spaces.
So, from the answer above, that means that our passwords should always contain at least one of each type of character?
Yes, that’s exactly what it means.
Take, for example, the very weak password “news.” If another lowercase character
was added to it (for example to form “newsy”), the total password search space is increased by
26 times
. But if, instead, an exclamation point was added, (making it “news!”), the total search space is increased by a whopping
1,530 times!
That’s how important it is to choose passwords having at least one of every type
of character. If anyone ever does try to crack your password, you will have eliminated all shorter searches.
Is there an optimum character mixture?
Since most users will likely always be choosing all lowercase characters you’ll
want to stay as far away from that as possible. And, similarly, the fewest number
of users will ever be using many special symbol characters. So the wisest attacker
will aim for the herd, searching through lowercase passwords first and symbol-oriented
passwords last. Since this is one race which you want to finish last (meaning never) using more symbol characters is highly recommended.
But remember: Not only
symbols, since you first want to have every type of character represented to force a “full depth” search.
Password Related Links
A Large-Scale Study of Web Password Habits
‑ THOROUGH & interesting 9-page Microsoft Research PDF.
Analysis of the passwords SONY lost
‑ in one of their 2011 network breaches.
The password cracking power of GPU’s
‑ the need to recalibrate our password length thinking.
A homebrew password cracking system
‑ that cracks at 33.1 billion passwords per second!
An analysis from a major site breach
of the passwords users had chosen. VERY interesting!
Top 10 Most Common Passwords
‑ Another interesting snapshot of typical users.
The Top 500 Worst Passwords of All Time
‑ (Profanity Warning) ‑ A list that wasn’t edited.
Why Steve Gibson’s Password Padding Works for Humans
‑ An interesting post about cognitive science.
Click Seal for Details
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Gibson Research Corporation is owned and operated by Steve Gibson. The contents
of this page are Copyright (c) 2011 Gibson Research Corporation. SpinRite, ShieldsUP,
NanoProbe, and any other indicated trademarks are registered trademarks of Gibson Research Corporation, Laguna Hills, CA, USA. GRC’s web and customer privacy policy
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Last Edit: Dec 12, 2011 at 13:27 (3.15 days ago)
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