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Langa Letter: Managing Your Windows XP Passwords

Losing a Windows XP password is surprisingly common! Here are Fred's suggestions about how to get back into your accounts and files.

Windows XP (like Win2K and NT before it) can be made reasonably secure if you make use of the appropriate settings, tools, and techniques. For example, you can easily create different types of user accounts with varying levels of permissions, and expose only the limited-permissions accounts to the online world; you can use the NTFS file system, and encrypt some or all of your hard drive; and so on. Coupled with well-thought-out passwords, your XP system can be made acceptably secure against routine external attacks. (See "How Much Protection Is Enough?"; "Good And Bad Online Security Check-Ups"; and "Ten Windows Password Myths").

And if you do a good job of controlling access to the PC, your data can be made not just "acceptably" but very safe indeed. For example, you can help control electronic access to the system with good firewalling and network practices (see "Firewall Feedback" and "How Much Protection Is Enough?"), and you can control physical access through simple expedients such as locking your office door; or, if that's not an option, through BIOS-level passwords, security access keys, "dongles," and the like (see examples) ).

But all that security can come back to haunt you if you forget your password(s), or if you legitimately need to access someone else's password-protected PC. This happens fairly frequently in totally above-board circumstances such as when a worker has become incapacitated or is no longer with a company, but has left behind a password-protected company-owned PC; in IT departments and repair shops where password-protected machines must be accessed for servicing; in simple user-error cases where someone has forgotten their own password; and so on. There are ways to break into a PC from afar, but we won't discuss any of those here, as most legitimate scenarios imply that you have unhindered local access to the PC. Or, to put it the other way, the usual reason for attempting a remote access is cracking--an illicit break-in. We have no desire to assist people in that kind of activity.

But, assuming you have a fully legitimate need to access a password-protected PC, and that you therefore have unhindered access to the PC, there are quite a few methods (some free, some not) that can help you either reset or otherwise bypass the existing passwords.

In this article, we'll sample a few of the tools available to solve the most common types of operating system- and application-level password problems in XP. Then we'll also discuss resources for an enormous range of tools that can solve almost any other password-related problem. Let's get started, working from the simple to the more complex.

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