How to configure a strong password policy in Debian

Setting a good access password on our computers and servers is essential. Today we continue to enter our computers on many occasions with a username and password, although there is already the possibility of configuring two-step authentication to add another layer of security to authentication. Configuring a strong password on our computers is basic, but it is possible that many users do not comply with the guidelines of a secure password, for this reason it is very important to configure a good password policy to force all users to comply. Today in this article we are going to show you how to configure it in any Linux operating system, we will use Debian but in systems like Ubuntu the process is the same.

What is the purpose of configuring a password policy?

When we installed the operating system, the installation wizard asked us to enter a username and also an access password to authenticate ourselves in the operating system. If we have decided to create a root password, then we have had to enter two different passwords (although they could be the same, but for security it is recommended that they be different). However, in the installation wizard we do not have any kind of password policy preconfigured, so we can put a password as simple as “key” or “123456” among other passwords that are not secure. Root users and those belonging to the Administrators group should have strong passwords, as well as normal users without privileges, in order to protect the security of the operating system.

If we want to force all PC or server users to use strong passwords, it is absolutely necessary for the system administrator to create a robust password policy, in order to prevent users from using passwords that are so easy to crack or guess. We could also force different users to create a new password that complies with the new key requirements of the operating system, in addition, we could also force all users or only some, that their password expire from time to time and have to enter one new password if you do not want to be left without access to the operating system.

To have a good password policy, it is very important to take into account:

  • Create strong passwords that are not in dictionaries and have a certain complexity.
  • Force users to change their passwords to comply with the new access password policy.
  • Configure password expiration, to force users to change their passwords from time to time.

Next, we are going to see how to configure a good password policy on our server or PC with Debian or Ubuntu.

Configure a strong password policy

The first thing we must take into account to configure a robust password policy is to be administrators, we must have root privileges to be able to make all the changes, since they affect all the users of the operating system. Once we have administrator permissions, then we can begin to perform the different steps to correctly configure the password policy.

Install the libpam_cracklib tool

The first thing we are going to do is install the libpam_cracklib library, this library is in charge of verifying that the password you are going to enter is not part of a dictionary, that is, that it is not a simple word. It will also check that the password is not the same as another that you have used previously, that is, it will not let us reuse the passwords that we have already used previously. Nor will it allow us to reuse passwords that have only changed one character, let’s imagine that the new password is “Pepe123.”, Since the new password cannot be “Pepe123-” because we have only changed one character. Other characteristics of this library is that it checks if the new password is too short, if it is not very complex, and even allows us to know if it does not have a single character entered several times consecutively, with the aim of making the password more complex.

We must bear in mind that setting a strong password is very important, as it is the first line of defense in the security of our operating system. To install this library, we simply have to execute the following command:

sudo apt install libpam-cracklib

If you use “sudo” in your operating system, you will have to put this command before the installation command, otherwise, if you are in root mode you will not need to use it. Before continuing, we must indicate that the installation of this library is very important, because thanks to it we will be able to configure the password policy as we want.

Edit the configuration file

Once we have the library installed, now is when we are going to edit the file that is located in /etc/pam.d/common-password. But before editing it directly, we recommend that you make a backup copy of this configuration file, in case we put any wrong configuration, to be able to return to the factory settings easily and quickly.

To make a backup copy of this file, just execute the following command and put the path that we want:

sudo cp /etc/pam.d/common-password /root/

Once done, we open the file with superuser permissions to be able to edit it, we can use vi, vim, nano or another text file editor by console, we will use nano. You could also use a graphical text editor, but always with root permissions because otherwise it will not let you edit it.

sudo nano /etc/pam.d/common-password

Now we will see the complete configuration file of the operating system:

Once we are inside the editor, we must locate a line similar to the following:

password requisite retry=3 minlen=8 difok=3

In the following image you can see where it appears:

This is where we must edit it, and we will have the following options to configure it as we want.

  • retry: number of attempts before the system returns an authentication error and expels us.
  • minlen: is the minimum length of the password, by default it is 8 characters.
  • difok: number of different characters that the new key must have compared to the old one.
  • ucredit: uppercase characters that must be at least or maximum.
  • lcredit: lowercase characters that must be at least or maximum.
  • dcredit: the number of digits it must have as a minimum or maximum.
  • ocredit: the minimum or maximum number of other characters (symbols) the key must have.

The ucredit, lcredit, dcredit and ocredit options can have negative or positive numbers, to define if we want it to have a minimum or maximum range, for example:

  • lcredit = -2: means that it must have at least 2 lowercase characters.
  • lcredit = + 2: means that it must have a maximum of 2 lowercase characters.

And it is the same with the rest of the lcredit, dcredit and ocredit options.

Configure the key policy to apply

Once we know all the configuration options that we have at our disposal, we are going to choose the key policy to configure. An example of a key policy could be the following:

password requisite retry=3 minlen=12 difok=3 ucredit=-3 lcredit=-3 dcredit=-3 ocredit=-3

With the previous policy we will have:

  • Minimum password length 12 characters.
  • If we change the password, there must be at least three differences.
  • 3 uppercase characters, 3 lowercase characters, 3 digits and 3 symbols minimum

We have not put any character as a maximum, but we could also incorporate it, to limit the number of characters of the same type that is allowed, however, with this key policy we believe that the key is complex enough to avoid problems.

Check the new key policy

Once we have it configured, we are going to change the password of our own user so that it fits perfectly with the new password policy that we have configured. To change the password we must execute the following order:

sudo passwd

We will have an assistant where we will have to indicate the new password, so that it fits perfectly with the previous policy. Depending on the password that we enter, we could see a different error, for example, it could tell us that the key is too simple, it is a dictionary word, it is too short, etc. Once the new password that we have entered complies with the policy, it will allow us to change it without any problem.

Force other users to change their password

Debian gives us the possibility to force the password change for the next user login, in this way, they will not be able to avoid the new password policy that they must comply with. In order to force users to enter a new access password, the administrator user must execute the following command:

passwd -e USUARIO

The “-e” argument forces an expiration of the user’s password, and at the next login you will need to enter a new password that conforms to the new password requirements of the operating system.

Configure password expiration for users

If we want to configure the expiration of passwords for users, we can also use the passwd command to carry out this configuration for each and every one of the system users, or individually. To define a password expiration and force users to change it before the term expires, we must execute the following command:

passwd -w 5 -x 30 USUARIO

The “-x” argument means that users must change their password at most every 30 days. The argument “-w” means that it warns us from 5 days before the password expires, to change it, in this way we remind the user that he must change the access password.

It would also be highly recommended to configure the inactivity of the account, if the user does not change the password after the expiration of the key, that it is put as inactive and it is the system administrator who has to activate it again. Let’s imagine that we want to mark an account as inactive if a day has passed since the expiration of the key, in this case the configuration would be:

passwd -w 5 -x 30 -i 1 USUARIO

The passwd command allows us to put different arguments in the same order, we recommend that you read the man pages of this tool where you will find all the available configuration options.

As you have seen, configuring a good password policy on our server with Debian or Ubuntu is really simple, we will simply have to install the library and make some adjustments, in addition, it would be highly recommended to force current users (if they exist) to create a new access password.

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