Table of contents

Passwords

This article provides guidance on passwords and Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) within the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). It helps you protect MoJ IT systems by telling you about choosing and using passwords and PINs. Whenever you encounter the word “system” here, it applies to:

  • Hardware, such as laptops, PCs, servers, mobile devices, and any IT equipment.
  • Software, such as the Operating System, or applications installed on hardware, or mobile device applications (apps).
  • Services, such as remote databases or cloud-based tools like Slack.

This guidance is for all users. It also includes more detail for system administrators or developers.

Note: Except where stated, the guidance in this article applies to both passwords and PINs.

Related information

Technical Controls Policy

Security in the office

Access Control guide

General best practices

Note: This section applies to passwords and PINs.

You shall not share your password or account details with anyone, unless you have documented approval to share from your Line Manager or higher senior manager.

If a system or another person provides you with a password, change it before doing any MoJ work on that system. Examples of ‘single-use’ passwords include:

  • Your own account on a work-provided laptop.
  • A shared account for accessing a data analytics service.
  • All supplier or vendor supplied accounts.

You shall change a password whenever:

  • There has been a security incident involving your account or password. For example, someone guessed your password, or you used it on another account.
  • There was a security incident with the service that you access using the password. For example, if someone broke into the system that provides the service you use.
  • Your line manager or other authorised person tells you to do so.

When required to change a password, you shall do so as soon as possible. If you don’t change the password soon enough, you might be locked out of your account automatically. The following table shows the maximum time allowed:

Type of system Maximum time to change a password
Single-user systems, such as laptops 1 week
All other systems 1 day

Best password practices for everyone

Note: This section applies to passwords only, not PINs.

The MoJ password guidance follows NCSC guidance. The NCSC recommends a simpler approach to passwords. Some agencies or bodies might have specific requirements or variations. Check your team Intranet or ask your Line Manager for more information.

Follow the CyberAware advice to generate your passwords. Always use a separate and unique password for each account or service.

The most important points to remember are that passwords should be:

  • At least 8 characters long.
  • No more than 128 characters long.
  • Not obvious.
  • Not a dictionary word. A combination of dictionary words might be suitable, such as “CorrectHorseBatteryStaple”.
  • Unique for each account or service.

Best PIN practices for everyone

Note: This section applies to PINs only, not passwords.

Some devices, especially mobile devices, only support numerical passwords, or Personal Identification Numbers (PINs).

If the device supports passwords, then passwords should be used rather than PINs.

If the device supports only PINs, you should:

  • Always use a separate and unique PIN for each account or service.
  • Ensure the PIN is at least 4 characters long.
  • Avoid using obvious PINs, such as 1234.
  • Avoid using repeating digits in the PIN, for example 0000 or 9999.

App-based password protection for files

Some applications - including Microsoft Office tools such as Word, Excel, and Powerpoint - provide mechanisms for protecting files. A password controls whether someone can open, or edit, a file.

While these app-based password protection mechanisms are better than nothing, there are three good reasons for avoiding them if possible.

  1. You depend on the application to provide and maintain strong password protection. If the password implementation fails, or has a weakness, you might not know about it. This means that you might think your information is protected, when in fact it is at risk.
  2. It is tempting to use a standard password for protecting a file within the app, so that other people can share and work with the file. Changing the password becomes “inconvenient”. The result is that many versions of the data file are all protected with the same password. Also, if anyone has ever been given the password to access the file, they will always be able to access the file.
  3. If you forget the app-based password, there might not be a recovery process available to you.

For these reasons, MoJ advice is that you should not use password tools within an app to protect data files that are processed by the app. For example, you should not use the password tools with Microsoft Word, Excel, or Powerpoint, to protect MoJ information within files. Instead, either:

  1. Store the data files in a shared but secure area, such as the MoJ SharePoint storage facility.
  2. Use separate encryption tools to protect data files, separate from the app that works with the data files.

Of these two options, storing data files in a shared but secure area is strongly preferred. The reason is that you can add, modify, or revoke access permissions to the storage area easily.

If you have no choice, and have to use app-based password protection, ensure that the same password is not used indefinitely for a data file. You should use a different password for:

  • Each major version of a data file, for example version 2.x is different to version 3.x.
  • Any data file where the password is more than three months old.

Note: This advice is a specific exception to the general guidance, that you do not normally need to change passwords.

Password expiry

You don’t have to change a password because it is old. The reason is that time-expiry of passwords is an …outdated and ineffective practice.

Some current or legacy systems don’t allow passwords that follow MoJ guidance. For example, some mobile devices, laptop hard drive encryption tools, or older computers might not be able to support a mix of character types. For such systems, choose passwords that are as close as possible to MoJ guidance.

Password managers

Use a password manager to help you keep track of your passwords.

These are tools that help you create, use, and manage your passwords. A useful overview is available here.

As passwords become more complex, and you need to look after more of them, it becomes increasingly necessary to use a password manager. For example, development teams in MoJ Digital & Technology use LastPass.

You still need to remember one password. This is the password that gets you into the manager application. Once you have access, the application works like a simple database, storing all the passwords associated with your various accounts and services. Some managers have extra features, such as password generators. Some managers can even automatically fill-in username and password fields for you when during log in.

The password manager database is often stored in the cloud so that you can use it anywhere. The database is encrypted, so only you can open it. That’s why your single password key is so important. Without it, you can never get access to the password database again.

Using a password manager for your MoJ account and service details is recommended.

You can find additional useful information about password manager tools here.

Extra guidance for system administrators or developers is available here.

System administrators or developers

Follow the Government Service Manual for Passwords when you administer or develop MOJ systems or services.

Suppliers and vendors shall ensure that systems support the password requirements. Systems shall be able to issue, change, reset, and revoke passwords. This shall be possible using well-defined and fully-described processes. Supply enough information and procedures to fulfil MoJ password policy.

The NCSC guidance for simplifying passwords says that forcing complex passwords has:

  • Marginal security benefit.
  • A high user burden.

Technical controls are more effective at protecting password-based authentication. Examples include:

Further guidance around the management of passwords at the MoJ is available:

User facing services

Authenticate people accessing user facing services by using the GOV.UK Verify service. It is not necessary for someone to be a UK Citizen to use the GOV.UK Verify service, but they shall have a UK address.

If it is not possible to use GOV.UK Verify, follow the advice presented here to support citizen passwords. Pay extra attention to the following points:

For more information, refer to the Multi-user accounts and Public-Facing Service Accounts Guide.

Service Accounts

System and application authentication shall always use service accounts. Use certificates for service account authentication. Follow NCSC guidelines for issuing and securing the certificates. If you can’t use certificates, passwords are an acceptable alternative.

Service account passwords shall:

  • Be system generated.
  • Be at least 15 characters long.
  • Be no more than 128 characters long.
  • Be complex, including upper-case and lower-case letters, digits, punctuation, and special characters.
  • Be kept secure, by using hashes or encryption.
  • Not be stored in the clear in any systems or applications.
  • Not be used by standard or administrative users for any purpose.

For more information, refer to the Multi-user accounts and Public-Facing Service Accounts Guide.

Default passwords

Change all default passwords when a new, modified, or replacement system arrives. Complete the changes before making the system available for any MoJ work.

When preparing devices or services for first use, system developers or system administrators shall configure the default password on the device or service so that it can be used once only. The “first use” of a password forces the user to change the password before the device or service can be used.

Multi-factor Authentication

Multi-factor Authentication (MFA) provides extra security for login and access controls. MFA is also referred to as Two-Factor Authentication or 2FA.

MFA shall be implemented and enabled on MoJ systems and services, including user accounts, wherever possible.

When performing a privileged action, such as installing or reconfiguring a system, or changing critical or sensitive details, it is important that the user is correctly and reliably authenticated. This is best done by using MFA. For example, before deleting a database configuration, MFA should have been completed successfully during the authentication process, to confirm that the user is indeed who they claim to be, and that they are indeed authorised to perform that privileged task.

In general, follow the NCSC guidance for enabling MFA.

Use Time-based One-Time Password Algorithm (TOTP), or hardware and software tokens, as the preferred MFA mechanisms. If possible, avoid using SMS or email messages containing one-time login codes. If TOTP applications, or hardware- or software-based tokens, are not available to you, then SMS MFA or email MFA is still better than no MFA.

Systems shall offer MFA alternatives to users where they are available. For example, MFA codes sent by SMS are not suitable if mobile devices are not allowed in the room or building where the privileged task is being performed.

For more information, refer to the Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) Guide.

Extra measures

Check that a system, service, or information protected by a password is not classified as Secret or Top Secret. Make sure that it doesn’t contain delicate material. Examples include contracts, or personal data or information. If it does contain such material, you might need extra access control.

Check which other systems have access to the system or service. Make sure that the access control suits the material at both ends of the connection.

Appropriate extra measures might include tokens or other multi-factor authentication devices. Think about using an existing authentication system other than passwords. Avoid creating new authentication systems. Try to reduce what a user needs to remember. For more information about authentication, refer to the Authentication guide.

A technical risk assessment helps identifies extra controls for systems. This is mandatory for systems that need formal assurance. Multi-user systems are also subject to a Business Impact Assessment (BIA). For example, an assessment might find that you need extra checks for logging in to an account or service. The checks might depend on various factors such as:

  • Time of login.
  • Location of login.
  • Number of previous connections from the connecting IP address.
  • Whether to allow more than one login at a time.

Examples of these extra mechanisms include:

  • Biometrics.
  • Tokens.
  • Certificate-based authentication.

Password storage

Never store, display or print passwords in the clear. If you need to store them, do so by using salted hashes.

Ensure the password storage security matches the classification of the system or data. For help with the appropriate strength of hashing, contact the Security team.

Extra information on handling and protecting passwords is in the Password Storage and Management guide.

Password access attempts

If a password is ever entered incorrectly, a count starts. After at most 10 (ten) consecutive failed attempts at using the correct password, access to the account or system is locked. A successful use of the password resets the count to zero again.

Password reset

If a password lock occurs, a reset is necessary. This requires action by the system administrator or the MoJ IT Service Desk. The process should be like issuing the password for the first time. Other account details are not changed during the reset. This helps avoid losing any work. Checks ensure that an attacker cannot use the password reset process.

Blocking bad passwords

You should not try and use obvious passwords. Attempts to do so will be blocked.

Developers and administrators should configure systems to check for and block obvious passwords embedded within a password. For example, MySecretPassword is not a good password! Use password and hash lists from SecLists or Have I Been Pwned, to help prevent bad passwords.

Distributing passwords to users

There are times when a system needs to send a password to a user. An example is when granting access to a service for the first time. To send a password to a user, the mechanism used shall be secure. The protection should match the sensitivity of the information protected by password.

Passwords created for a user should always be single-use. Use an out-of-band channel to send the password to the user. For example, send the password to the user’s line manager who will give it to the user.

For more information, refer to the Password Storage and Management Guide.

Single-use passwords

Some passwords are ‘one time’ or single-use. Administrators and developers use these to grant access to a service for the first time. After using the password once, the user shall immediately change the password.

Single-use passwords are time limited. If they are not used within a specific time after generation, they shall become invalid.

The following table shows the valid lifetime of a single-use password:

Type of system Lifetime of a single-use password
Single-user systems, such as laptops 1 week
All other systems 1 day

Multi-user systems and services

All multi-user systems and services shall check for redundant User IDs and accounts. If necessary, remove the redundant IDs or accounts.

The Access Control Guide discusses the management and removal of accounts.

If someone is no longer allowed to access a system, check for and change any shared account or common password they might still have.

For more information, refer to the Multi-user accounts and Public-Facing Service Accounts Guide.

Identity Providers and Single Sign-On

When you need an authentication solution, try to use existing MoJ services. Examples include Identity Provider (IdP) or Single Sign-On (SSO) services, such as Office 365 or Digital and Technology G-Suite.

This helps reduce the need to design, create, deploy and manage yet another solution.

SSO integration in existing IdP solutions improves the user experience. This is because you can authenticate to systems using existing MoJ credentials.

For more information, refer to the Multi-user accounts and Public-Facing Service Accounts Guide.

Account management

This guidance on passwords is separate from the guidance on account management. You should still follow the rules and processes for managing accounts. In particular, while you don’t need to change passwords after a period of time, you should still expire accounts promptly. Examples would be when accounts are no longer required, or have fallen out of use.

For more information, refer to the Account management guide.

Contact details

For any further questions or advice relating to security, contact: security@justice.gov.uk.

Feedback

If you have any questions or comments about this guidance, such as suggestions for improvements, please contact: itpolicycontent@digital.justice.gov.uk.