ACCESS DENIED. Those two bone-chilling words are the last thing you want to see when you're trying to log into a system or open a file, but they're not necessarily a dead end. Several free tools can help you find lost passwords you can't remember or that your computer has saved but obscured. Let's take a look at a few free remedies for lost password panic when you're trying to log onto a computer, network, or just figure out what's behind that string of asterisks.
Before we start, two things: First, use the information and utilities below to recover your own passwords, or to help out your desperate relative or co-worker with their consent—not to snoop in other people's stuff. Second, to avoid these last-resort password recovery utilities forever, use an encrypted database to keep track of your passwords.
When you can't log into that old Windows PC you haven't touched in years, try booting up using the Ophcrack Live CD. Ophcrack will detect all the users set up on your Windows systems, and reveal their passwords—if the passwords are relatively easy to crack. See Adam's screenshot tour of how Ophcrack works, and which Windows passwords it was able to crack and which it wasn't.
When you've saved a password in your FTP software, IM client, or any other application that boasts a password field filled with asterisks, you want a password reveal utility. Both Snadboy's Revelation (original post) and Nirsoft's Asterisk Logger can show you what's behind the ***** in most apps' password field.
Microsoft Outlook PST (Personal Folders) files: For that old email archive from three jobs ago that you locked with a password you can't remember, try PstPassword (original post). This free utility offers three possible passwords that can open the PST file.
Recover instant messenger passwords: Lost your MSN Messenger, Google Talk, AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Trillian, Miranda, or Pidgin password but you're logged in and you've saved the password on your computer? MessenPass can unearth them for you.
Network and Wireless Router Passwords
See what passwords your computer is sending across the network to log into various services with SniffPass. The free SniffPass captures the passwords that pass through your network adaptor, and displays them. SniffPass reveals passwords for POP3, IMAP4, SMTP, FTP, and HTTP (basic authentication passwords).
Reveal Wi-Fi network passwords: This one saved me when I arrived at Mom's newly wireless-enabled house, asked her what the password to log onto the network was, and got a blank look in response. The free WirelessKeyView (original post) reveals Wi-Fi passwords saved in Windows.
Default router passwords: Of course if you want to log onto a wireless router and think maybe the owner never changed the default, check out the router default password list to find the factory password for the router's model.
While password crackers for the Mac are non-existent as far as I know (correct me if I'm wrong!), the Mac Keychain is the way to reveal many of the passwords you've saved on your system. Find the Keychain in your Applications/Utilities folder. You'll have to enter an admin password just to get into Keychain, but then you can click on any entry—like Wi-Fi networks or saved application passwords—to get details and see the passwords.
Firefox Saved Browser passwords
Finally, if you're saving web site passwords in Firefox, it's easy to reveal them as well. In Firefox, from the Tools menu, choose Options, and in the Security tab hit the "Saved Passwords" button. Then hit "Show Passwords." Alternately, if you're on a page with a password field filled in with asterisks, you can use the "View Passwords" bookmarklet to see them (#10 on that list). (Of course, here's how to secure your passwords in Firefox with a master password.)
Note: Much of the Windows software featured in this article is by Nirsoft, but the ones we mentioned are just the beginning. Check out Nirsoft's complete mother lode of freeware Windows password utilities.
What password recovery utilities have saved your bacon? Tell us about 'em in the comments.