Password ManagersWe’ve spoken before about password managers and how useful they can be when it comes to keeping track of your many logins. With hackers and data breaches showing no signs of stopping any time soon, you might be curious about how they stack up as a cybersecurity option. That’s why we’ve decided to give you an in-depth look at how password managers work and walk you through choosing the right one for you. Continue reading to learn more about this cybersecurity tool and whether or not it will suit your needs.

Breaking down password managers

So, just what is a password manager? At their most basic, password managers are a type of program designed to store and retrieve all your passwords. These programs generally use a master password to securely encrypt your logins and allow you to access them when necessary without the need to type them in yourself. Some password managers have features beyond this, like being able to generate secure password suggestions or store other sensitive data, such as your credit card details, but for the most part, the core function of a password manager is to help you keep track of your passwords.

Why might you want to use such a program? The key reason is that having a password manager allows you to bypass the issues surrounding password fatigue. It’s hard to remember passwords for so many accounts, so a lot of people end duplicating weak passwords across multiple accounts. Having a password manager allows you to “remember” a multitude of long, unique password combinations without having to worry about security issues like improper storage or failure to recall them by memory.

Which should you choose?

While the idea behind what a password manager does is simple, choosing one can be somewhat complicated as there are several different types of password managers. Below, we discuss the most common types, their pros and cons and who should use each one.

Cloud-based password managers

What they do: These are what people typically think of when they talk about password managers because they are so common. Programs like LastPass or Dashlane, as well as those which come with Internet security software like Norton often fall under this category. They function by storing your password information on an encrypted cloud server. Because your data is in the cloud, it can usually be synced to whatever devices you need to use it with — be that a smartphone, tablet or computer — and accessed with your master password or other secure login method (like your fingerprint).

Pros: A number of security experts have no problems recommending cloud-based password managers, as they’re consumer-friendly and sufficient for most people’s needs. For the most part, password management companies are responsible and use very high levels of encryption to secure users’ passwords and other data. So even if a breach occurs, in most cases, people’s master passwords won’t be compromised.

Cons: Most of these types of password managers operate as a subscription service with a monthly fee, so keep that in mind if you’re on a budget. Since the information is stored on a cloud server, you’re at the mercy of whatever security settings a service deploys. Storing data on a server means it could, in theory, be modified or hacked without your knowledge – to wit, some of these services have had leaks and breaches in the past.

Who should use them: People who want a password manager which can be used seamlessly between different types of devices and offers extra features beyond storing passwords.

Browser-based password managers

What they do: Modern browsers, such as Firefox and Chrome, allow you to store passwords on your system and retrieve them when accessing the appropriate login page. Browser-based password managers are a sort of hybrid solution, as if you choose to sync your browser profile across devices, then your passwords will usually be synced to these devices as well (unless you choose to specifically exclude a password or website from this process) – essentially running a cloud-based password manager from your browser. Otherwise, your passwords will be stored locally and encrypted.

Pros: The most cost-effective option, since it comes with your browser for free. Additionally, it’s extremely easy to use — any time you use a browser, you’re asked if you want to store your passwords.

Cons: Unfortunately, this option lacks the robustness of a full password manager, so if you’re looking for extra features like analysis of your overall password security, you’ll be missing out. On top of that, if someone uses your computer or steals your device while you’re logged into your browser, it will continue to autofill any passwords you’ve saved in your browser. Also note that if you’re using the syncing feature, then many of the same weaknesses we discussed regarding cloud-based password managers can apply.

Who should use them: Anyone who is looking for an uncomplicated way to store and remember passwords for website-based logins, without a need to pay or have access to special features.

Local password managers

What they do: Local password managers are manually installed onto devices. They can be just as robust as cloud-based password managers, often having similar features. The big difference, however, is that they don’t automatically sync to new devices and must be managed manually. While this might seem like a curse in the era of cloud syncing, you can get around this by installing the password manager on a USB stick instead of on every single device you use. For devices like smartphones, which lack a USB slot, there are apps which allow you to transfer passwords from your computer and store them on your phone.

Pros: There is a lot to like about local password managers. First, many of the most popular local password managers, like KeePass, tend to be free and open source so you won’t have to pay to use them. Second, they lack the weaknesses of other password managers and don’t require you to trust the cloud to keep your data secure. Access is limited to the device level, meaning someone would have to take or break into the device storing the passwords in order to use them.

Cons: Local password managers are also the most complicated option for the very same reason that makes them likable — you have to manage every facet of these programs yourself. For example, your password changes will not sync automatically. So, if you update your password, you’ll have to manually update all instances of your password manager whenever you change passwords before you forget, or your risk losing the password. Finally, while storing your passwords on a USB drive is an okay alternative to automatic cloud synchronization, if the drive is lost or corrupted, you could lose your passwords – and the same goes if you only have the program installed on a single computer or device. People often get around this by backing up their password manager to a second USB drive or storing a copy of their password manager on a computer only they can access.

Who should use them: Tech-savvy users who are comfortable with manual management of files, folders and physical storage media (like USB drives) on their own and have the patience and discipline to update passwords themselves.

Can I use more than one type of password manager?

It should be noted that none of these options are mutually exclusive, and you can opt to use all of them simultaneously. Keep in mind, however, that duplicating your passwords across different password managers will likely increase your attack surface. Managing multiple password managers can be a lot of work and make things more complicated than needed. As such, it might make the most sense to get familiar with one of these platforms and use that as your primary means of password management.

For more information about cybersecurity tools that can benefit you, keep reading our technology blog.