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Size does matter: Outlook.com punters want meatier passwords

16 characters not enough, say security experts

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Microsoft has come in for a bit of stick in security circles for only allowing a 16-character password for sign-ups to Outlook.com, Redmond's newly launched Gmail rival.

The service – which has already attracted more than a million sign-ups – has a maximum password length of 16 characters, the same as Hotmail.com and Windows Live ID. Yahoo!, by comparison, allows up to 32 characters (although its minimum of six is too short, even for a complex password).

Experiments by Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, suggest that Google supports password lengths well over 32 characters. "When registering an account with Gmail, I was unable to hit a limit on password length," Cluley explains in a blog post. "However, as I tried to log into an account I had created with a ridiculously long password I was told I could only enter 200 characters."

The length of a password is less important than its strength, which depends on whether the login credential uses a mix of letter, numbers and non-alphanumeric characters (good) or words that might be found in a dictionary (terrible). But length is a factor is password strength and there's no good reason for Outlook.com to be more restrictive on this point than either Gmail or Yahoo!, its main competitors.

"It's a shame to see the new Outlook.com miss an opportunity to encourage the use of longer passwords," Cluley added. "Anything which encourages users to choose hard-to-crack, hard-to-guess, unique passwords is good in my book."

A video from Sophos explaining how to create passwords that are hard to crack but easy to remember, as well as explaining the importance of not using the same password on multiple websites, can be found here.

The introduction of Outlook.com this week also saw jokers beating Microsoft's chief exec to the punch by grabbing steveballmer@outlook.com. Another address that ought to be reserved – donotreply@outlook.com – also fell into the hands of pranksters.

Less amusingly there's little doubt that phishers and spammers have also acquired Outlook.com addresses in preparation for the launch of various scams. Unlike the password length issue, this sort of landgrab is virtually impossible to prevent and the best that we can hope for is rapid detection of account abuse combined with a well-oiled take-down machine.

Other gripes about the new webmail service have included poor integration with Opera and the usability of its audio CAPTCHA for password recovery, both of which sound like the sort of teething troubles that Microsoft will be able to iron out fairly quickly. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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