What Is A Password Manager?

June 7, 2018

11:51 am

A password manager is software that remembers all your website passwords, such as for your email, social media and banking. With a password manager, you can log in by autofilling passwords with the click of a button, so you don’t need to remember numerous online passwords yourself.

With most of us juggling dozens of passwords on a daily basis, it’s all too easy to forget some, or fall into bad security habits. A password manager means that you can stay safe online and not have to worry about creating (and remembering) loads of complicated passwords.

A good password manager will offer plenty of options to make life easier, such as working across multiple devices, generating passwords for you, and even alert you when one of your favourite sites has been breached. 

Most offer a free version, as well as a premium paid-for service. We weigh up the pros and cons of paying a few dollars a month for a password manager instead of just using the free version.

How Do Password Managers Work?

Password managers, such as the popular LastPass, are refreshingly simple in what they do. Acting like a digital notebook, they remember your passwords, taking all the pressure off you when you’re trying to log into your email and can’t remember if you chose your first pet or your Mom’s maiden name as a password (not that you should be doing that).

No more getting locked out of your account or having to reset your password, just a couple of clicks and you’re securely logged into your site

Most are either browser plug-ins or downloadable software, which happily run in the background until you happen to get to a login page. At this point, they will automatically log in for you. No more getting locked out of your account or having to reset your password, just a couple of clicks and you’re securely logged into your site.

You might already have used a similar system in your browser, when it asks if you would like it to remember your password when logging into a site. This is a very basic form of password manager, and while it does the job, a dedicated service can offer a fuller, more secure experience with a host of additional features.  

What Do Password Managers Let You Do?

All password managers perform the basics of remembering your passwords (storing them securely in a digital ‘vault’). Then, when you visit a site that requires you to log in, your password manager will pre-populate the username and password fields with the click of a button.

It’s not just passwords that a password manager will remember. Most services have the ability to remember other information too, such as financial details, passports, driver’s licenses…pretty much anything.

Extra Storage Functions

But, it’s not just passwords that a password manager will remember. Most services have the ability to remember other information too, such as financial details, passports, driver’s licences or storing PDFs. One of the benefits of this is that you have more control over where your details are and who has access to them.

Take an online retailer for example, who might ask if you want it to remember your payment details during an order. If you’d rather not have them saved on the company’s site, you can just store them in your password manager and add them when needed with a simple click. No concerns about the company storing your payment details, and no getting up to grab your wallet each time you want to pay for something.  

Password Generation

Most services will even assist you with creating passwords, pointing out when the one you have chosen is too weak, or even generating them for you at the push of a button. The ones that the managers generate are typically a random cluster of letters and numbers. You won’t have to worry about remembering them, so they can be more complicated, and therefore, more secure. 

This means that you’re not using the same one for more than one site – a real no-no when it comes to creating passwords. In a worst case scenario where one site is hacked and username and passwords stolen by people with nefarious intentions, using the same password across multiple sites opens up even more opportunity for fraud across multiple sites. A password manager can remove this risk entirely.

Security Alerts

Some password managers, like 1Password and Dashlane, will go a step further, and alert you when a site you use has been breached. While site breaches are an unwelcome part of daily life, speed is key, and the faster you can change your password, the less damage can be done.

Digital Demise

One of the most interesting features offered by paid-for password managers is that of what happens to all your passwords should you pass away or be otherwise incapacitated. We’re sorry to bring it up, but it’s an area of life that most online services are well behind on. Some paid-for services will allow you to pass on all your passwords to a named person or people when you go. Morbid to consider? Perhaps, but it’s a genuinely innovative feature.

Are There Risks to Using a Password Manager?

No system is infallible, but we’d argue that using a password manager offers more security than trying to remember all your own logins, or doubling up and using the same password across multiple sites.

Master Password

Each password manager tends to use a similar approach – you only need to create one ‘master password’ in order to access your password vault, where all the others are stored. While that’s far easier to remember than trying to juggle dozens of passwords, it does present a unique risk – forget your master password, and you lose access to all your passwords.

You can often create a trusted emergency contact, however. So, if the worst happened and you forgot your master password, a friend or family member could securely recover your account details.

A Lot of Trust

The hardcore sceptic might question the security of putting all their eggs in one basket with a password manager. In a hypothetical scenario, where a password manager was breached, then the hackers would have access to all your details in one place.

Nobody is more aware of this than the developers of the services themselves. If one were to be compromised, it would obliterate its brand legitimacy overnight, with customers likely leaving in their thousands, and tarnishing the service with a spotty reputation for years to come. That’s why these services employ numerous levels of security and constantly update their software to protect their customers, and also, themselves.

If you’re worried about leaning too hard on a password manager and forgetting your existing passwords, fear not, you can see them for all sites at any time, and change them with ease.

Should You Pay for a Password Manager?

A lot of password managers offer free versions, and you could find that the features bundled in with these are all you really need for day-to-day browsing. However, subscribe to these services for a small monthly fee, and you’ll open up a wealth of options.

You might be wondering what else a password manager could possibly offer aside from, well, managing your passwords, but some of the additions are really rather smart. For example, what happens if you want to share some or all of your passwords for various services with others? This is a fairly standard premium feature of most password managers.

You can also expect one-on-one tech support. Password managers are relatively basic and straightforward to use by nature, but for a few dollars you can buy peace of mind in case you come unstuck or experience any problems.  

If you like to juggle your online life across multiple devices, like a phone, tablet, laptop, desktop PC and so on, premium versions of password managers will work seamlessly on various bits of kit you own, bringing the one-click login experience to every device.

Read more about what makes a good password on TechCo

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