The reason password expiration policies exist, is to mitigate the problems that would occur if an attacker acquired the password hashes of your system and were to break them. These policies also help minimize some of the risk associated with losing older backups to an attacker.
For example, if an attacker were to break in and acquire your shadow password file, they could then start brute forcing the passwords without further accessing the system. Once they know your password, they can access the system and install whatever back doors they want unless you happen to have changed your password in the time between the attacker acquiring the shadow password file and when they are able to brute force the password hash. If the password hash algorithm is secure enough to hold off the attacker for 90 days, password expiration ensures that the attacker won't gain anything of further value from the shadow password file, with the exception of the already obtained list of user accounts.
While competent admins are going to secure the actual shadow password file, organizations as a whole tend to be more lax about backups, particularly older backups. Ideally, of course, everyone would be just as careful with the tape that has the backup from 6 months ago as they are with the production data. In reality, though, some older tapes inevitably get misplaced, misfiled, and otherwise lost in large organizations. Password expiration policies limit the damage that is done if an older backup is lost for the same reason that it mitigates the compromise of the password hashes from the live system. If you lose a 6 month old backup, you are encrypting the sensitive information and all the passwords have expired since the backup was taken, you probably haven't lost anything but the list of user accounts.
I have argued before that it doesn't improve anything. From that post:
Obviously the attacker does not know your password a priori, or the attack wouldn’t be brute-force; so the guess is independent of your password. You don’t know what the attacker has, hasn’t, or will next test—all you know is that the attacker will exhaust all possible guesses given enough time. So your password is independent of the guess distribution.
Your password, and the attacker’s guess at your password, are independent. The probability that the attacker’s next guess is correct is the same even if you change your password first. Password expiration policies cannot possibly mitigate brute-force attacks.
So why do we enforce password expiration policies? Actually, that’s a very good question. Let’s say an attacker does gain your password.
The window of opportunity to exploit this condition depends on the time for which the password is valid, right? Wrong: as soon as the attacker gains the password, he can install a back door, create another account or take other steps to ensure continued access. Changing the password post facto will defeat an attacker who isn’t thinking straight, but ultimately a more comprehensive response should be initiated.
So password expiration policies annoy our users, and don’t help anyone.
There was a study by Microsoft concluding the password expiration policy does not increase the security in real life scenarios.
These articles were removed, but available on the Internet Archive: