Tackle your password headaches! SWAT Systems

Password managers can be locally installed on one computer or subscribed to as a cloud-based service. The cloud-based option allows you access to your latest information through a web browser, smartphone, and computer app. Optionally, you can install a browser extension (a mini app for your internet browser) on your personal computer that automates a lot of passwords tasks. For example, it can offer to save any new credentials and allow you to automatically log in to a saved account. Either of these settings can be disabled.

The one thing that is probably crossing your mind right now is, “If my single username and password details aren’t 100% safe with big corporations, how is storing all of my usernames and passwords in one location any better?” It may look like we’re asking you to improve your digital security with a solution that’s even worse.

The best password managers, however, store and encrypt your data differently than big corporations. Give me 30 seconds to explain.

Any technology person will agree that the best way to protect your data is to encrypt it. In fun non-technical terms, encryption is like processing your data through a gibberish-language translator and then running it through a complex paper shredder. Basically, your data is unreadable and useless to a thief without the complex password that reverses the encryption.

The problem big corporations run into is encrypting and decrypting mass amounts of data requires a ton of computer power. If you are a very popular service, you’d have to do this millions of times a day (think Facebook or Dropbox). Most companies protect your data by building a big and heavily-guarded barrier. To gain access, you need to enter your username and password, which is why its recommended you create complex passwords and activate 2FA. When they let a person in through the gates, they feel confident that person was meant to. Of course, hacks do occur, and it usually comes down to either a an easy-to-guess password, non-existing 2FA, or a crack in the barrier that no one knew about.

On the other hand, it takes very little power to handle encryption process for basic text and data entries. Password managers can encrypt all of your data at 128/256-bit levels (bank-industry levels). After setting up a username and password, when you sign up for a password manager account you will be assigned a complex secret key. That key will be required to access your details. Every app you set up for the first time (Windows/Mac, smartphone, browser) will ask you for that secret key so that it can encrypt/decrypt your data every time you access it. Only you have that secret key. If you lose it, there is no way to regain access to your details or account except through the apps that you already set up once on your phone or computer.

Two-factor authentication is not a tool you purchase and activate on all of your accounts. It is the responsibility of the service provider to integrate a 2FA option into their service. You will need to log into each account you own (e.g. Dropbox, Spotify, iCloud, Netflix, etc) and look for account security options. If you see that 2FA is something you can activate, the service provider will instruct you on how they’ve decided to offer 2FA. Most of the time, activating 2FA on your account is free. The cost of this additional layer of security is covered by the service provider as a way of reducing theft, being compliant, and lowering insurance costs.

For example, you might be asked to activate 2FA by providing a cell phone number so that one-time codes can be texted to you. Others might direct you to download a specific 2FA app that generates these one-time codes. There are many 2FA providers and apps that a company can choose to partner with. That’s why securing all of your accounts with 2FA normally requires us to download and configure multiple 2FA apps. It’s a very small price to pay for data protection.

Like anti-virus software, there are dozens of password manager options at different price levels. If you’re up to the task, tech review websites (e.g. PCMag.com) have done a great job of reviewing several options while comparing different features. Their reviews might help you determine which one fits your budget and password needs. With over 100 items in my vault, I’ve had the “pleasure” of testing a few password managers myself. Below is a quick list of the ones I’ve tested with great success and why I chose to use my current password manager.

• My two-cents: The simple user interface was nice, but the additional fields and customization options of other password managers became something I needed. Also, at the time of my testing, it didn’t do cross-checking of my credentials with a compromised database. With all of the data theft and hacks, its an important feature I wanted. Nonetheless, it’s a great app for most people’s needs.

• My two-cents: The Mac app was not optimized for the latest macOS and high-def screens, causing text and icons to look blurry or grainy. The user interface looked great on my Windows workstation, which is how I knew the Mac one needed some work. Also, in my opinion, the browser extension offered too much help, often getting in the way of my work. Turning off certain settings killed other helpful features.

• This is currently the password manager of my choice. I am a design-centric person, so the layout, graphics, and experience of the service is very important to me. That’s why their recently-released desktop apps (version 7) won me over. It combined most of my favorite elements from both LastPass and Dashlane. Crisp and clean design on both my Mac and Windows workstation. The browser extension was less intrusive but easily available whenever I needed them.