Institute for Software Research
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University


Creating Usable Policies for Stronger Passwords with MTurk

Richard Shay

February 2015

Ph.D. Thesis (COS)


Keywords: Password, policy, usability, security

People are living increasingly large swaths of their lives through their online accounts. These accounts are brimming with sensitive data, and they are often protected only by a text password. Attackers can break into service providers and steal the hashed password files that store users' passwords. This lets attackers make a large number of guesses to crack users' passwords. The stronger a password is, the more difficult it is for an attacker to guess.

Many service providers have implemented password-composition policies. These policies constrain or restrict passwords in order to prevent users from creating easily guessed passwords. Too lenient a policy may permit easily cracked passwords, and too strict a policy may encumber users. The ideal password-composition policy balances security and usability.

Prior to the work in this thesis, many password-composition policies were based on heuristics and speculation, rather than scientific analysis. Passwords research often examined passwords constructed under a single uniform policy, or constructed under unknown policies. In this thesis, I contrast the strength and usability of passwords created under different policies. I do this through online, crowdsourced human-subjects studies with randomized, controlled password-composition policies. This result is a scientific comparison of how different password-composition policies affect both password strength and usability.

I studied a range of policies, including those similar to policies found in the wild, policies that trade usability for security by requiring longer passwords, and policies in which passwords are system-assigned with known security. One contribution of this thesis is a tested methodology for collecting passwords under different policies. Another contribution is the comparison between password policies. I find that some password-composition policies make more favorable tradeoffs between security and usability, allowing evidence-based recommendations for service providers. I also offer insights for researchers interested in conducting larger-scale online studies, having collected data from tens of thousands of participants.

162 pages

Lorrie Faith Cranor (Advisor)
Lujo Bauer
Nicolas Christin
Brian La Macchia (Microsoft Research)

William Scherlis, Director, Institute for Software Research
Andrew W. Moore, Dean, School of Computer Science

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