Thursday, October 10, 2013

Getting organized: Password Security

Use common sense: Don’t use your logins and passwords as cubicle wallpaper or leave them in on a park bench. You should, however, be realistic about them: How many people really want the password to your organization’s Twitter account? If you are representing then you should be serious about the Twitter password, otherwise... not so much. It’s OK to have these passwords printed out on a piece of paper in a file drawer or even a closed binder behind your desk. Many web services also have something called “two-step certification.” Basically, you put in your password and then you have to put in another passcode that gets emailed, texted to a cell phone, or comes up on some kind of app. As long as there aren’t too many people accessing your accounts, this is a nice extra level of security.

There are some passwords you always need to be careful with, however.

  • CMS administrator passwords. Your organization’s website might be running on a CMS or Content Management System. There are typically different levels of access to a CMS. Some people can just add and edit content, while others can really get in and edit/adjust/delete everything on the site. The latter is called an “administrator” or “superuser.” Those account passwords are typically not handed out lightly by whoever is running the server but if you get one, really protect it. If someone gets that and accidentally makes changes to your site, they can screw it up beyond recognition... really easily. That caution, actually, goes for you, too. As the web manager, you should argue for an administrator password, but be really, really, REALLY careful about what you delete. It’s important to have that password but, hopefully, you’ll never need to use it.
  • Server (root) passwords. If a bad person gets the “root” password to your server, they can change all of the other passwords and lock you out. It’s fixable but takes time to correct. That could mean your organization’s site is down for a while. If you have someone running your server and have no plans to change, you won’t ever use this password. If your organization has a “dedicated server,” it’s not a bad idea to have the root password locked up somewhere in case the server administrator leaves. If you are on a “shared server,” you should not expect to get a root password.
  • Ecommerce passwords. This is a bit of a no-brainer, but is worth repeating. If you get a password to a website that is any way connected to a bank or credit account, that password needs to be treated with a lot of care. Hopefully, your accounting group is aware of these and is keeping an eye on the accounts. If the accountants are willing to keep track of these passwords, you should not demand them for your documentation. What’s important is that the passwords are accessible to your organization, it makes no difference whose file cabinet they are in. The fewer places these passwords are written down, the better.
  • Encrypted databases. If a database is “encrypted,” the information in the database is purposely scrambled according to a mathematical algorithm. If you could look at an encrypted database, it would look like nonsense. When you apply the encryption “key,” however, your data magically turns back into useful information. It’s a security measure. Most often, encrypted databases are part of an ecommerce site. Credit card numbers are kept in encrypted databases. Sometimes membership databases are encrypted. If you run into an encrypted database that is working with your website, make sure you have a password to “decrypt” the data. As with the ecommerce passwords, the fewer places these passwords are documented, the better. 

Dedicated vs. shared servers: Neither option is better than the other.

One last thought on password security. If you are getting this job because some people left their jobs (voluntarily or not), take a half a day and start changing passwords. Do this even if there was no animosity surrounding the person’s leaving. It’s like buying a new house. The first thing you need to do is change the locks.  If a web savvy person left the organization with a less-than-happy attitude about it, that person could potentially mess with the website. Even if no one is unhappy, it’s an extra account sitting out there that could cause problems. It’s just a good practice. If you are on a CMS, you can either delete their account or just remove the “permissions” that allow them to edit the site.

Always change passwords when someone leaves. It's just a good habit.
Who should you tell about this little bit of lock-changing? Anyone who is needs access to these different systems will need the new passwords. Your immediate boss should probably know you did it and should probably have a copy of the password list in case something happens to you. You can safely just consider these new passwords “need to know” information and you’ll do fine.

At this point, you should have a pretty good overall picture of the situation:

  • Your goals for yourself and for the site.
  • A budget to work within.
  • An inventory of your human and web resources.

Now it’s time to clean house a bit.

With an eye toward those three things, look at the web presences you have already out there. If you see anything there that doesn’t directly align with your goals, delete them. Leaving a stub of a web presence on Facebook that no one has looked at or updated in the last five years just looks bad. Either start paying attention to it or get rid of it.

If it turns out to strategically useful to be on Facebook later, you can always start another account.

You won’t have time to outreach in a useful way on a dozen other websites. Focus on what’s important to your audience and on what directly supports your goals. Let the tangential stuff – no matter how cool it is – go.

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