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Recovering and Securing Network and Internet Passwords

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Security expert Eric Geier shows you how to find or capture your network, browser, and email passwords, which is useful if you’ve forgotten them. Plus, he explores password vulnerabilities and teaches you how to protect against them.
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If you've lost or forgotten a password, don't worry. Most passwords can be retrieved fairly quickly and easily. This article shows you how to recover most network and Internet related passwords.

On the other hand, there's also a downside of being able to recover passwords: It's a security risk. If someone else gets a hold of your PC or laptop, that person too may be able to retrieve your passwords. So this article also tells you how to keep your computer and passwords secure.

There are many password recovery and cracking tools out there. In this tutorial, we're going to use my favorite set of utilities, all from the developer NirSoft. You can download each utility individually from their pages, using the links in the sections below. Or, you can alternatively download all of them at once, either as a zip file of standalone programs or an installation file that installs them to Windows like typical software.

As NirSoft also warns, their utilities may be detected as infectious by anti-virus software. You can ignore these alerts.

Recover Saved Wi-Fi Encryption Keys

When you connect to a wireless network secured by WEP or WPA/WPA2 encryption, the key or passphrase you enter is stored by Windows. That way, you don't have to enter it each time you connect. However, you might forget the password after a while, which is a problem when you want to connect from a new Wi-Fi computer or gadget.

If you're using Windows Vista or later, you can simply open a wireless network's saved profile/properties to view the password. But this isn't possible in Windows XP. However, you can use the WirelessKeyView utility to recover encryption keys or passphrases stored by the Wireless Zero Configuration service of Windows XP.

Open WirelessKeyView, and you'll see the encryption passwords appear right away, sorted by the Network Name (SSID). You'll probably be most interested in the Key (Hex) values. In Windows XP, WPA keys are automatically converted into a new binary key that contains 64 hexadecimal digits. However, you can use this key just like the original one.

You can right-click an entry to copy the Key value, in case you need it now or want to save it to a file. You can even generate a quick report of the recovered details to an HTML file; click View > HTML Report.

You can also load the wireless keys from an external instance of Windows. This could be, for example, from an old hard drive you've hooked up or other computers shared on the network. Just click File > Advanced Options and select the Windows Directory.

Keep in mind, Windows doesn't ask you—it automatically saves the encryption key or passphrase when connecting to a new wireless network. This unfortunately means you can't prevent this from happening, for security reasons. To delete the stored password, you must open the network settings and remove the profile for the wireless network.

Recover Passwords for Dial-Up or VPN Connections

Windows gives you a choice to save the passwords of dial-up and VPN connections when connecting. However, like most other services, you can't see the cached passwords as they are hidden behind asterisks.

If you forget a dial-up or VPN password, though, you can easily recover it using the Dialupass utility. Simply open the program, and it will scan Windows for you. Then you can save the items to a file, copy them, or create an HTML report.

You can also capture the login credentials from a particular phonebook (.pbk) file or from an external instance of Windows, such as on an old drive or network computer. To get started, click Options > Advanced Options.

To protect your dial-up and VPN passwords, you can simply opt out of having it save your password when logging in.

Find Passwords Saved by Your Web Browser

When you log in to websites or web-based applications, most web browsers ask if you want it to save or remember the login credentials. When you choose to do this, the credentials are saved by the browser so you don't have to enter the username and password each time. However, if the browser doesn't use encryption to save the passwords, they can be recovered. NirSoft provides a recovery utility for the most popular web browsers:

Simply open the utility for your particular browser. It will scan and display all the saved credentials. Then you can save or copy the details, or generate an HTML report. Most of these browser utilities let you choose another Windows user account from the Advanced options.

Obviously, you can opt out of saving your passwords to protect them from recovery by strangers. But some browsers, like Firefox, let you encrypt your saved passwords, protecting them from recovery.

Capture Passwords from an Active Network

Passwords don't have to be saved to a computer to be recovered. You can run the SniffPass utility to capture login credentials that are transferred over your Internet connection, such as for website, email, and FTP logins if the connection isn't protected with SSL (https) encryption. It listens to your network traffic and displays any usernames and passwords it detects.

Simply start by opening SniffPass and clicking the Start Capture button. Next, select the network adapter (usually the one with an IP address, not 0.0.0.0). Then log in to a site, service, or server, and you should see the usernames and passwords appear. Like most of the other utilities, you can copy details or generate an HTML report.

To help protect your network from these types of attacks, first make sure wireless security (like WPA2-PSK) is enabled to prevent strangers from eavesdropping on your Wi-Fi traffic. And if you want to prevent authorized users from eavesdropping, consider using the Enterprise mode of WPA2 security for your Wi-Fi.

Recover the Passwords Stored by Your Email Client

If you use an email client program, like Outlook, to check and send messages, it's configured with the login credentials of your email server or service. If you forget your login details, though, you can quickly recover them using Mail PassView. Simply open the utility, and you'll see the login details from many popular email clients.

Unfortunately, most email clients don't provide a way to encrypt or secure your email passwords.

Secure Your Saved Passwords

We already discussed if and how you can secure individual passwords. But, you can also secure them by following some basic security practices.

Make sure you password-protect your Windows user account and have a separate account for those you don't trust. When you walk away from your PC or laptop, log off or lock it.

Additionally, consider encrypting your entire hard drive with Windows BitLocker or another utility like DiskCryptor or TrueCrypt. Encrypting it will prevent advanced recovery and hacking methods, like removing your Windows account password or booting into a live CD to bypass Windows.

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