Passwords have been around in one form another for as long as humans have walked the earth. In ancient times, Roman soldiers would use a different secret word each day amid the fog of war to distinguish friend from foe. In more recent times, the speakeasies of Prohibition used secret whistles and door knocking combinations to screen the patrons of their underground libations, while only a few years later, soldiers on D-Day used small metal clickers called “crickets” to identify each other and coordinate troop movements.
The modern computer password has its roots in the early 1960s, when engineers at MIT faced the now-familiar problem of having to share one large computer between multiple users. Then as now, a different password for each user unlocked a different set of data. At the time, this was the more efficient choice than wasting limited computing power by identifying each user through a series of questions asking their mother’s maiden name, favorite pet, etc. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Many in the tech industry expect that the passwords we use today will soon give way to the fingerprint and facial recognition technology that’s reached critical mass on our smartphones and is making inroads with retailers around the world. In the meantime, we’re all faced with the common task of having to come up with the right string of letters, numbers, and symbols to keep safe and secure the data we rely on to navigate the Information Age.
Today, DCA recommends using a good password manager. For the uninitiated, password managers are essentially a software package that combines a sophisticated random number generator (to generate passwords that are hard to crack) along with secure storage, either on your device or in the cloud, to allow you to access your accounts across whatever platforms you use to access your data. And although this might sound like an unnecessary extra step, it sure beats the heck out of having your identity stolen, particularly if your account password is still the actual word “password.” Decades ago, even our friends at MIT had problems with accounts being hacked.
Choosing the right password manager boils down to the questions of what you’ll be using it for, what platforms you’re going to use it on (Mac, Windows, Android, etc.), where you want your data stored (locally or on the cloud), and how many additional bells and whistles you’re looking for.
Best Free Password Manager: LastPass
LastPass offers more features for free than any other password manager, including the ability to sync passwords across desktop and mobile devices.
Platforms: Desktop app for Macs and mobile app for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone; browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, Edge, and Opera.
Base cost: Free
Premium cost: $36/year premium version, $48/year family version.
Data Storage: Master data storage in the cloud, updated to each device.
Best Overall: Dashlane
The workhorse of password managers. Dashlane’s best feature is its bulk password changer, allowing you to change dozens of passwords at once in the event of a data breach. Premium features also provide excellent security options, and during the coronavirus quarantine, new users qualify for 90 days of free premium service.
Platforms: Desktop app for Windows and Mac; mobile app for Android and iOS.
Base cost: Free, but limited to one device and 50 passwords.
Premium cost: $60/year including VPN (Virtual Private Network) service and dark-web monitoring; $120 per year also includes credit monitoring and identity protection assistance.
Data Storage: Stores data on devices and in the cloud, but can disable cloud syncing and delete remote storage.
Best for Macs: 1Password
Works with Touch ID and Face ID on Mac devices but its Windows and Android offerings lag behind. Also offers excellent feature to remove sensitive passwords from devices when traveling internationally, which can then be refreshed on the device later.
Platforms: Desktop apps for Windows and MacOS with mobile apps for iOS and Android; browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Edge, and Opera.
Base cost: Free 30-day trial version.
Premium cost: $36/year individual version, $60/per for families.
Data Storage: Allows you to opt out of their cloud storage by purchasing the software outright for $64.99 and use your own cloud storage.
Best for Families: Zoho Vault
Offers a good combination of tools for smaller families but those looking for more tools for more people should look elsewhere.
Platforms: mobile apps for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone; compatible with Chrome, Firefox, and Safari browsers
Base Cost: Free for individuals, with similar features to LastPass but only accessible through your browser.
Premium Cost: $12/year per user with good family features; additional $4-7/month per user for enterprise and emergency access tools.
Data Storage: Syncs between the cloud and your devices.
Password managers are a good, free to low-cost solution to the annoying but necessary problem of passwords and, we believe, better than having 10 handwritten pages with every password for every site you access. Just don’t lock yourself out of these programs!
So Happy Password Day from your friends at the Digital Citizen Academy. Like you, we’re not exactly sure what the customary gift is for this, ahem, Hallmark Holiday, so if you are stumped take a few moments and try out one of these to ‘gift’.