The cybersecurity hygiene rulebook says we shouldn’t reuse the same password on different accounts. Doing so creates a single point-of-failure for bad actors to compromise your digital life.
But let’s face it. Few people are willing (or able) to remember a dozen different passwords for the likes of TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, for booking flights and hotel rooms, paying bills, etc.
Some delegate the task to their web browser and use autofill to log in. Some make the wise decision to use a trusty password manager – which also helps strengthen each password. But that’s not everybody. In fact, most people are quite the opposite.
According to a Bitdefender study, half of netizens use the same password for all their online accounts. A third admit to creating a few passwords and then reusing them, and around a quarter use simple (weak) passwords across the board. Some, however, take a different approach – remixing the same password across accounts, using various appendages. For example:
TikTok –> T1kT0kpassword
Facebook –> Fac3b00kpassword
Twitter (now X) –> Tw1tt3rpassword
It’s certainly smarter than using the same password everywhere, but it does carry a hefty dose of risk. Here’s why:
Using logic to remix your passwords requires a pattern – the simplest being the example above, involving a static part and a dynamic part. Former web developer Mac Pence over at Quora offers a more complex example in the same framework.
If someone discovers your pattern, they can use logic to crack your other passwords. In a sense, this is almost as risky as using the same password everywhere, meaning you are creating a single point of failure for hackers to exploit.
For example, if you accidentally expose one variation in a phishing scam, the attacker can spot your baseline and try to find your pattern to discover the passwords to your other accounts.
The idea behind using remixes of the same password is to make it easier to remember unique passwords. However, for those who manage dozens of different accounts on the web, the remix method can become confusing, and you may forget which variation you used for a particular account. This can lead to password reset scenarios and account lockouts.
Some apps and services have account policies that lock your account after a certain number of failed login attempts. If you’re spiraling down trying to remember your password variations, one-too-many incorrect attempts on one account could lock you out, and perhaps out of other accounts as well. The last thing you want is to get locked out of an account you rely on for two-factor authentication.
Hackers often use lists of known usernames and passwords leaked from data breaches to carry out credential stuffing attacks on popular websites used by everyone everywhere, such as social media platforms. If they find one variation of your password, they may attempt to use similar variations to gain access to your other accounts.
Similarly, if an attacker is specifically targeting you, they may attempt to brute force your password by systematically trying variations.
If you’re using password variations, it most likely means your passwords are readable – not gibberish, like machine-generated passwords (1!4@5#HG$L&^%... etc). This means if someone sees your screen while you’re logging in, not only will they see your password as you type it, but they may also notice the pattern. If the password was easy to remember, they can try to crack the logic behind it and hack your other accounts.
Using variations of passwords is convenient and certainly better than using the same single password everywhere. However, as described in the scenarios above, this practice does introduce various security risks that could lead to the compromise of multiple accounts – and even account lockouts. Passwords are an important asset and must be guarded sacredly. Be sure to use unique, strong passwords for each account, ideally managed by a password manager, and enable multi-factor authentication with every service that offers it.