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Easy and Safe: The Next Frontier in Cyber Security

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17,134 years.

That's how long experts from the Georgia Institute of Technology say it would take a hacker to decode your computer password if you adopted one with at least 12 characters.

Your current one that uses just five or six letters? Thanks to new technology, a properly trained and equipped crook could unravel your computer password in less time that it takes to eat lunch and make a quick stop at the dry cleaners.

In particular, experts at the institute have been studying new and advanced Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) chips, which, for a few hundred dollars, provide the processing power of technology that cost tens of millions of dollars only a decade ago. The arrival of these new chips, which hackers can put to use to decode security passwords, is significantly altering the security landscape, they believe.

The implications for billions of technology consumers worldwide couldn't be more important: today, everything from personal communications to family finances to medical records are potentially at risk. Because of this, working professionals and consumers alike should take stepped-up measures to protect themselves. The experts from the institute, for example, recommend passwords with at least a dozen characters. The more varied, the better.

"A computer keyboard contains 95 characters, and every time you add another character, your protection goes up exponentially, by 95 times," explains Joshua L. Davis, a Georgia Tech Research Institute scientist.

Unfortunately, most consumers do not choose strong passwords due to the perceived hassle. A recent UK study of computer passwords found that one in five consumers choose a pet's name as their password. Another study by Imperva reveals that 20 percent of all users use one of just 5,000 words as their password. An astonishing number use either "12345" or "iloveyou" to protect themselves.

As the experts see it, these consumers are making a foolish tradeoff--choosing convenience over security--that few can afford to make.

"Everyone needs to understand what the combination of poor passwords means in today's world of automated cyber attacks: with only minimal effort, a hacker can gain access to one new account every second," says Imperva CTO Amichai Shulman.

Rather than make a false tradeoff between convenience or security, technology users would be wise to prioritize both equally. Contrary to conventional wisdom, pursuing two, seemingly opposed objectives simultaneously often produces a better outcome than choosing one option over another. In business, for example, leaders are benefiting from efforts to simultaneously pursue disruptive and sustaining innovation, established and emerging markets, and existing and new business models. Similarly, sports teams have benefited from developing individual superstars and promoting better team play.

Could consumers do the same when it comes to protecting themselves online? Absolutely--so long as they accept the idea that choosing ease of use over peace of mind--or vice versa--is a mistake.

Fortunately, there are plenty of places where consumers can find help increasing their security without compromising their convenience. Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science, for example, has an online service that can help technology users create passwords that are easy to remember and nearly impossible to crack. So does Purdue University. In addition, numerous media reports provide practical advice.

While the tips are helpful, the key to making a positive change is understanding the consequences of making a foolish tradeoff--and not just when it comes to cyber security, but in all aspects of life. When faced with a choice between pursuing one objective or another, a better approach often is doing both instead.

Inder Sidhu is the Senior Vice President of Strategy & Planning for Worldwide Operations at Cisco, and the author of Doing Both: How Cisco Captures Today's Profits and Drives Tomorrow's Growth. Follow Inder on Twitter at @indersidhu.

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