Recently, Imperva released a study (pdf) of the passwords extracted from the December 2009 RockYou security breach that resulted in the compromise of over 32 million user accounts. This study examined some statistics of the passwords retrieved, including the number and variation of characters use to construct them. The results were pretty bad. Here are the highlights:

-30% of users had passwords made up of 6 characters or less. Most brute force attempts are moderately successful against short passwords.

-Over 50% of passwords were all lowercase, or all numbers. This is bad because the keyspace is reduced. Even a password that is longer than 6 characters is weakened if it has a small character set distribution.

On the surface, these two statistics aren’t a good look at all, especially considering the ease with which an attacker could successfully guess simple passwords.

Also, in many cases, a password breach may not just make a user’s account vulnerable on the breached site, but can also lead to their account being compromised on other sites as well (plenty of people use the same password on multiple sites).

However, there is an alternative way to interpret this data. Although there is no way to verify this, it could be the case that users are starting to give value to the importance of some accounts AND the security of the website associated with it. And those accounts that are of low significance (like a site they just sign up on to play a game) get simple, easy-to-remember passwords, while accounts of greater personal significance (banks, primary email, etc.) get the more robust passwords. Similarly, it could be the case that users think sites like RockYou are sketchy anyway, and thus more likely to get hacked than other more-serious sites.

So, in a way, the user could be protecting themselves from a site breach. I know I wouldn’t care if I had a RockYou account and the site got breached since I wouldn’t really use that same password anywhere else important. It may be annoying, but it is much better than knowing that my super-secret 28-character password is sitting on some stranger’s computer simply because somebody left the door open.

So if you think of this report from the perspective of users managing risks reasonably instead of users being victimized, it almost makes sense that 29,000 people had ‘123456’ as a password.