What's New in Technology for September 2011

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Technology: Pros and Cons of Password Management Tools

Have you ever counted the number of passwords you have – for banking accounts, for your email, for online retailers?  If you’re like most people, you have a lot and the number just keeps growing. Most of us have far too many unique passwords to keep them in our heads – and resort to storing a list somewhere. Now this location might not be handy if we use different computers, but it could be all too accessible to a thief. Of course, the perils of simplifying this dilemma by using the same password for multiple accounts are obvious: a single data breach would destroy your entire online security. Password management tools – secured by one single strong password – are designed to make it easier to protect a variety of user names and passwords and recall them as needed.

The increase in mobile communications has been a big factor in the recent development of password management tools. If you normally use the same computer for the majority of your transactions, these management programs might prove quite helpful. If you are a road warrior – on the move and frequently using multiple computers or hand-held devices – password management might prove to be indispensable. Some well-known suppliers of password management programs include IronKey, LastPass, RoboForm, Kaspersky and Password Genie. In determining the right program for you, the degree of mobility and level of cryptographic security will be the major deciding factors. Some offer online self-help and/or phone support 24/7. One time purchase costs vary from $20 to $80, depending upon the range of features offered. LastPasseven offers a basic but secure option for free. Here’s an overview of the options.

One-Platform Tools

The simplest management programs store login data as you enter the information and automatically offer to fill in the appropriate data when you come back to the same site. These types of programs are often referred to as web form fillers. Various products offer different features – more sophisticated form fillers are able to store and fill in more data than others. Some allow you to use a USB flash drive to create a portable version of their program; others require you to purchase an additional program designed to be used independently from the single-site version.

Mobile Across Different Computers

These versions give you the ability to access your data via a master password from various computers, but not (necessarily) from smart phones. There are some variables, but most programs secure your password data on your computer using a combination of your license key, account user name, master password and hardware identifiers. This password data is sent via SSL to a secure offsite data center where it cannot be viewed online, via websites or by people working at the data center. Your license allows you to install the password management program and to retrieve the data you need from a specific number of computers (some allow as many as five computers). The password manager program gives you a strong and unique master password to get access to your secure data. Programs offer features that allow instant, or easy, synchronization with all usernames and passwords used on your machines. The various features are designed to make the process of installing, saving and synchronizing browser passwords simple and almost seamless. Most of these programs involve a subscription fee. In the case of Password Genie and LastPass, it’s about $12 to $15 per year.

Fully Mobile

If you want full mobility, which means you’ll be able to use the same program for your smart phone (iPhone or Android) and personal computers, Password Genie, RoboForm and LastPass offer upgrades or separate products for smart phones that can be synced with desktop versions. This is the latest and hottest frontier for password management programs, and developers are adding to their offerings in this category.

Final Thoughts

One important consideration when evaluating the choices available: not all programs offer fail-safe protection if you forget your master password. If you lose it, they cannot help you to retrieve it.


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