Why following Get Safe Online's advice could leave you anything but


OPINION: I seem to have become the Mystic Meg of IT security journalism. I mention some potential issue in passing and that very same problem gets exposed elsewhere for all the world to see.

Take the small matter of pathetically poor password strength meters. I recently mentioned them at the very end of a piece about how badly eBay handled its data breach, in that its site features a totally broken one.

This was in light of its suggestion that a seven character string password with one uppercase letter was more secure than a 12-string combination of nine random lowercase letters and three random numbers.

I shouldn't have been surprised, as most (if not all) password strength meters are at best nothing more than eye candy.

My personal surprise meter hit the red within a week of the article being published, after I saw a news story reporting that another site - which really should know better - was also using broken password meters.

The site in question was the Government-backed Get Safe Online, which is described as being a "security service to help protect computers, mobile phones and other devices from malicious attack."

A screenshot of the meter in action showed that the ridiculously insecure combination of a name and date, in this case Julia1984, had been graded as 'exceptional' in terms of strength.

I shouldn't have been surprised, as most (if not all) password strength meters are at best nothing more than eye candy.

It even told the user they had "all the right moves", as far as creating strong passwords are concerned.

If that wasn't bad enough, the password being tested by this user was right there in plain text when the result of the strength meter was returned and displayed on screen for anyone who might be looking over the shoulder of said person to note down.

So that's two alarm bells ringing for the price of one in terms of offering insecure advice and implementing an insecure web service. Nice.

Nobody who knows anything about security would use a first name followed by a year as a password and think it was secure, but it takes a real class of idiot to present this as acceptable to those who don't know anything about security.

There's a widely-used phrase within the IT industry about eating one's own dog food, which essentially means that those offering advice should follow it themselves.

Despite the fact Get Safe Online acted pretty quickly to remove the offending, and offensive, password meter from their site after the story broke, I'm inclined to think that with advice like this being handed out, no wonder reported breaches are on the up.

Davey Winder

Davey is a three-decade veteran technology journalist specialising in cybersecurity and privacy matters and has been a Contributing Editor at PC Pro magazine since the first issue was published in 1994. He's also a Senior Contributor at Forbes, and co-founder of the Forbes Straight Talking Cyber video project that won the ‘Most Educational Content’ category at the 2021 European Cybersecurity Blogger Awards.

Davey has also picked up many other awards over the years, including the Security Serious ‘Cyber Writer of the Year’ title in 2020. As well as being the only three-time winner of the BT Security Journalist of the Year award (2006, 2008, 2010) Davey was also named BT Technology Journalist of the Year in 1996 for a forward-looking feature in PC Pro Magazine called ‘Threats to the Internet.’ In 2011 he was honoured with the Enigma Award for a lifetime contribution to IT security journalism which, thankfully, didn’t end his ongoing contributions - or his life for that matter.

You can follow Davey on Twitter @happygeek, or email him at davey@happygeek.com.