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Managing User Accounts, Passwords, and Logons : Setting a Logon Password

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3/21/2011 6:44:07 PM
Associating a password with your user account is your first line of defense against those who would like to snoop around in your files. Because the Welcome screen shows every user account, if you don't set passwords, anyone who has physical access to your computer can log on by simply clicking a name on the Welcome screen. If the chosen name belongs to an administrator account, the person who clicks it has full, unfettered access to every file and setting on the computer. Requiring a password for each account (particularly administrator accounts) goes a long way toward securing your computer.


You needn't worry about someone who's not in your homegroup logging on to your computer remotely (over the network, the internet, or with Remote Desktop Connection, for example) if your account doesn't have a password. Security features in Windows prevent remote logon by any account with a blank password. When you don't have a password in Windows, the risk comes only from people who have physical access to your computer.

This feature is enforced by a policy setting, which is enabled by default. If you have the Professional, Enterprise, or Ultimate edition, you can confirm that the policy setting is enabled, as follows. At a command prompt, type secpol.msc to open Local Security Policy. Open Local Policies\Security Options and be sure that the Accounts: Limit Local Account Use Of Blank Passwords To Console Logon Only policy setting is enabled. (If you use the Starter or Home Premium edition, you needn't worry; the policy setting can't be disabled.)

1. Creating a Secure Password

A password is of little value if it's easily guessed by an intruder. Obviously, you shouldn't use your name or something equally transparent. However, even a random word provides little security against a determined intruder—some hackers use tools that try every word in the dictionary. By observing the following guidelines, you can create a password that's difficult to crack in a reasonable amount of time:

  • Use at least eight characters. Longer is better, which is why some security experts suggest using a pass phrase. A password or phrase can (and should) include spaces and punctuation; the maximum length is 127 characters.

  • Use a mixture of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers, and punctuation.

  • Avoid including your name or user name in the password.

  • Use random sequences instead of words, or intersperse numbers and punctuation within words—W!nd()wS 7 1ns!dE ()uT for example.

With a little thought, it's pretty easy to come up with a password that is memorable and secure. For example, start with a phrase about yourself or your hobbies—one that you can easily remember, such as I'm addicted to Solitaire. Make a few letter substitutions, misspell a word or two, and you come up with I'm +Icted 2 $ol!ta!re. It's long, uses all four types of characters, contains no dictionary words, and is easy to remember—so you won't be tempted to write it on a sticky note attached to your monitor.


You can't log on

Even when you're certain you know the password, you might have trouble logging on. First, be aware that passwords are case sensitive: You must type capital letters and lower case letters exactly as you did when you created the password. If you still can't get on, be sure the Caps Lock key is not on.

2. Setting a Password

The simplest way to set a password for yourself or for another user (if you have administrator privileges) is with User Accounts in Control Panel. Click the name of the user for whom you want to set a password and then click Create A Password. A window like the one shown in Figure 1 appears.

Figure 1. User Accounts allows you to provide a password reminder hint that becomes available on the Welcome screen.

To change your password, you must provide your old password as well as a new one.

Inside Out: Use Ctrl+Alt+Delete to access password options

The fastest path to a password-setting screen for your own account is to press Ctrl+Alt+Delete and then click Change Password. There you can set a password along with an updated hint.

You can use other account management tools to set a password, but User Accounts is the only tool (along with Ctrl+Alt+Delete, described above) that lets you specify a password hint. The password hint appears after you click your name on the Welcome screen and type your password incorrectly. Be sure your hint is only a subtle reminder—not the password itself—because any user can click your name and then view the hint.


If another user has files encrypted with EFS, do not create a password for that user; instead, show the user how to create a password for his or her own account. Similarly, do not remove or change another user's password unless the user has forgotten the password and has absolutely no other way to access the account. (For more information, see the following section, "Recovering from a Lost Password.") If you create, change, or remove another user's password, that user loses all personal certificates and stored passwords for websites and network resources. Without the personal certificates, the user loses access to all of his or her encrypted files and all e-mail messages encrypted with the user's private key. Windows deletes the certificates and passwords to prevent the administrator who makes a password change from gaining access to them—but this security comes at a cost!


You can't access encrypted files because an administrator changed your password

When an administrator removes or changes the password for your local account, you no longer have access to your encrypted files and e-mail messages. That's because your master key, which is needed to unlock your personal encryption certificate (which, in turn, is needed to unlock your encrypted files), is encrypted with a hash that includes your password. When the password changes, the master key is no longer accessible. To regain access to the master key (and, by extension, your encrypted files and e-mail messages), change your password back to your old password. Alternatively, use your password reset disk to change your password.

When you change your own password (through User Accounts or with your password reset disk), Windows uses your old password to decrypt the master key and then re-encrypts it with the new password, so your encrypted files and e-mail messages remain accessible.

3. Recovering from a Lost Password

It's bound to happen: someday when you try to log on to your computer and are faced with the password prompt, you will draw a blank.

Windows offers two tools that help you to deal with this dilemma:

  • Password hint Your hint (if you've created one) appears below the password entry box after you make an incorrect entry and then click OK. You can create a hint when you set a password with User Accounts.

  • Password reset disk A password reset disk allows you (or anyone with your password reset disk) to change your password—without needing to know your old password. As standard practice, each user should create a password reset disk and keep it in a secure location. Then, if a user forgets the password, he or she can reset it using the password reset disk.


You can make a password reset disk only for your local user account. If your computer is joined to a domain, you can't create a password reset disk as a back door to your domain logon password. However, in a domain environment, a domain administrator can safely reset your password and you'll still have access to your encrypted files. Also, on a computer joined to a domain, password hints are never shown, even for local user accounts.

Both solutions require a little forethought on your part. You must create the hint when you set your password, and you must create the password reset disk before you actually need it.

To create a password reset disk, you'll need to know your current password and you'll need to have removable media available. (You can use a floppy disk, USB flash drive, external hard drive, or memory card.) Follow these steps:

  1. Log on using the account for which you want to create a password reset disk.

  2. If you want to use a USB flash drive as a password reset disk, insert it in your computer's USB slot.

  3. In Control Panel, open User Accounts.

  4. In the left pane, click Create A Password Reset Disk to launch the Forgotten Password wizard.

  5. Follow the wizard's instructions.

You can have only one password reset disk for each user account. If you make a new one, the old one is no longer usable.

To use the password reset disk when password amnesia sets in:

  1. On the logon screen, make an entry in the password box. If you guess right, you're in! If you're wrong, Windows informs you that the password is incorrect.

  2. Click OK. The logon screen reappears, but with additional text below the password box.

  3. If the first bit of additional text, your password hint, jogs your memory, enter your password. If not, click Reset Password to open the Password Reset wizard.

    The Password Reset wizard asks for the location of the password reset disk, reads the encrypted key, and then asks you to set a new password, which it then uses to log you on. Your password reset disk remains usable for the next attack of forgetfulness; you don't need to make a new one.

If you can't remember the password, the hint doesn't refresh your memory, and you don't have a password reset disk, you're out of luck. An administrator can log on and change or remove your password for you, but you'll lose access to your encrypted files and e-mail messages and your stored credentials.

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