Recently in the newsgroups (news:microsoft.public.security, to be specific) the question of password polices and the out-of-box defaults came up. The poster lamented a number of things: that Microsoft doesn’t enable account lockout by default, that we don’t have a built-in mechanism for automatically disabling unused accounts, that the 42-day default expiration is troublesome. Here’s my response; figured that it would make for a useful blog post, too.
Account lockout is a poor substitute for good passwords — and is one of the most expensive security features you can use. Let’s think about this by considering the threat. What threat does account lockout (attempt to) mitigate? Password guessing. How can you make password guessing attacks become useless for an attacker? Two ways: implement lockouts or use good (meaning long) passwords.
Consider the first choice, account lockouts. The typical cost to an organization to reset locked accounts is US$75 per help desk call. In a medium or large organization, this can become a very high monthly maintenance cost. In nearly all instances, the call results from users locking themselves out (too many vodka tonics on the plane, maybe?), not users encountering locked out accounts because some bad guy was trying to guess passwords. Account lockouts have one more — very bad — problem: they create opportunities for bad guys to conduct denial-of-service attacks against accounts or entire domains! Even if you use a timed unlock of, say, 15 minutes, then the attacker can write his script to churn through thousands of bogus logon attempts every 15 minutes 2 seconds. So, contrary to the claim, enabling this setting actually can have significant impact on usability.
Account lockout is there for people who absolutely need it. But I can’t think of any instance where this is true. Instead, have a policy that requires simple passwords at least 15 characters long. Forget about complexity rules that force people to write down passwords. A simple 15-character passphrase (think short sentence) is easy to remember, quick to type, and far stronger than any short complex password. A passphrase like this will withstand any kind of automated password attack, including those based on rainbow tables. And you can even use a method that helps you remember unique phrases for each site, if you wish:
- web mail: “my dog and i got the mail”
- shopping: “my dog and i bought some stuff”
- office: “my dog and i went to work”
This is why we disable account lockout by default. There are much better — and much less expensive — ways to mitigate the threat.
Disabling unused accounts
You’re right, there’s no built-in method to automatically disable unused accounts. A variety of third-party products can provide you with this functionality. I suspect some of them might be free, perhaps simple scripts even. I tried searching on “automatically disable unused accounts” and saw a few hits that looked promising. This particular function, however, rightly belongs in the HR process. A number of customers I’ve spoken with have automated the account creation/disablement/deletion process, incorporating it into HR systems. When a new user is hired, the account is created; when the user departs, the account is disabled; some time later, it’s deleted. The HR systems take care of this, not domain or enterprise administrators. I wrote more about this subject in “When you say goodbye to an employee.”
Password expiration is an important setting for everyone. It mitigates two threats: employees sharing passwords and bad guys discovering passwords. Because we can eliminate the second threat using long simple passphrases as I described above, then we have only one remaining threat: password sharing. Your estimation of how prevalent this threat is in your environment will guide you toward choosing an expiration time that works for you. 42 days is a reasonable default; our own corpnet uses 70 days. My experience with most customers shows that password sharing isn’t a problem. So for those who do enforce long simple passphrases, I suggest that a reasonable default for expiration is 120 days.
Windows begins notifying you 14 days before your password expires. You can change this time period through group policy. I was in a similar situation recently. Last month my domain password expired while I was in Australia for TechEd there. I could continue to log on to my laptop with cached credentials, but couldn’t use Outlook Web Access or RPC+HTTP of course. So I connected to a Terminal Server computer we have on the Internet, logged on there, and changed my password.