Danny Guo | 郭亚东

Digital Security Coach

November 3, 2017  ·  563 words  ·  ~3 minutes to read

I confess. As of my senior year of college, I had a p.txt file buried deep within my Dropbox folders. It contained a list of all my passwords. I tried switching to the trick of using a mental password generator based on the website’s name, but I quickly ran into cases where websites had password requirements that didn’t fit the algorithm. I finally took the small effort of moving to a password manager after graduation, and I’ve used it ever since.

Why did it take me so long to get rid of p.txt? It wasn’t a case of not being aware of a better alternative. I had known about password managers for a while and always felt a twinge of guilt whenever I copied a password out of p.txt. I think I just didn’t care enough about the risks. Even now, identity theft is a relatively abstract problem for me. It happens to plenty of people everyday, but to my knowledge, none of my friends or family have had their identities stolen.

Yet I know on a rational level how devastating the consequences can be, I know that companies are breached all the time, and as a software developer, I may not be a security expert, but I at least know to use bcrypt and not MD5 to hash passwords. I’m probably better informed on digital security issues than the average person, yet I still didn’t make switching to a password manager a priority for a long time. So how do we get that average person to do it?

Last week I read a blog post by Troy Hunt. He created Have I Been Pwned in 2013. It’s “a free service that aggregates data breaches and helps people establish if they’ve been impacted by malicious activity on the web.” Lenovo gave him a ThinkPad 25 year anniversary edition laptop to give away. He is running a contest to give it to whomever makes the best use of the HIBP API.

For my entry, I created Digital Security Coach, a crash course on digital security. The source code is on GitHub, and I welcome any feedback or suggestions. It is intended to be as accessible as possible. The underlying philosophy is that it is more important to convince grandparents to use a password manager than to convince software developers to set up their own VPN servers. The site uses the HIBP API to give people a better sense of their potential exposure and to show that many passwords are compromised and shouldn’t be used again.

The goal is to quickly teach the prevalence of digital attacks, the potential personal consequences, and some actions that can improve security. By combining this information into one, easy to digest guide, perhaps readers will be both emotionally and rationally convinced to follow the suggestions. I like to think that my past self would have said “ok, ok, I’ll switch to a password manager” after reading it. It can be easy to leave something that you know you should do in the back of your mind, and sometimes a short but solid argument is all it takes to transform that intention into action. I hope Digital Security Coach persuades even one person to become a little more secure, whether it is by learning to only log in over HTTPS or by getting rid of his or her own p.txt.

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Found an error or typo? Feel free to open a pull request on GitHub.

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