Attacks/Breaches

11/29/2018
05:10 PM
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Dell Forces Password Reset for Online Customers Following Data Breach

Move prompts questions about scope of intrusion and strength of company's password hashing.

Dell has reset passwords for all customers of its online store following a data breach in which the names, email addresses, and hashed passwords belonging to an unknown number of people may have been exposed.

In an advisory this week, the computer maker said it had detected unauthorized activity on its network Nov. 9 involving an attempt to steal customer data. While there's no conclusive evidence the attackers succeeded, it is possible that at least some information was removed from the Dell network, according to the company.

To mitigate risk, the vendor has implemented a mandatory password reset for all registered Dell.com users. Next time these users attempt to login to their Dell accounts, they will be prompted to change their passwords. The hardware maker is also asking users to reset passwords on any other accounts protected by the same password they had used for Dell.com.

On a newly established customer update website, Dell described the incident and the password reset as primarily impacting customers of Dell.com, Dell.com, Premier, Global Portal, and support.dell.com.

The attackers do not appear to have targeted credit card and other sensitive customer information. The incident did not impact any of Dell products or services either, the hardware maker said.

Dell's statement provided no information on how many users of its online site might have been impacted by the incident. But based on Dell's actions, the number could be quite large, says Ilia Kolochenko, CEO of High-Tech Bridge.

"Usually, a mass password reset is a hallmark of a data breach impacting all customers," Kolochenko says. "If it's not the case, it should be clearly explained and emphasized." Leaving customers in the dark about any breach involving personal data is never a good idea, he says.

The mass password reset could also be an indication that Dell is not fully confident about the resilience of the hashed passwords against brute-force cracking attempts.

Typically, password hashing should make passwords unusable to criminals. But a lot depends on the strength of the algorithm that is used for the hashing, says Jarrod Overson, director of engineering at Shape Security. "Without details, it's safer to err on the side of caution, which, in this case, is that the hashes were generated with an algorithm that is quickly crackable, like MD5," Overson says. With such hashing, a hacker could use a free, open source tool like Hashcat to automate the testing of common or generated passwords, he says.

Ideally, organizations should consider storing password hashes generated by an algorithm such as bcrypt, which is generally considered to be very resistant to brute-force hacking, Overson notes.

Email account data and passwords have become increasingly hot commodities in underground markets. Because many users tend to use the same password across multiple accounts, attackers have been increasingly using breached username and password pairs to try and break into as many accounts as they can.

Credential-stuffing attacks, where criminals automatically enter large volumes of leaked credentials into e-commerce and other websites, have become increasingly common in recent years. In fact, underground chatter related to compromised accounts increased 150% year over year on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, according to new holiday shopping season cyberthreat stats from Cyberint. Chatter about attack tools, predominantly for credential stuffing, increased 20%, according to the vendor.

The trend has focused growing attention on the need for strong password and user authentication measures. Hashing and encryption are increasingly seen as basic steps to ensuring password integrity in the event of a data breach.

Since Dell has said the passwords for Dell.com users were hashed, it is likely the company is merely being extra careful in resetting them anway.

"It's a matter of how sophisticated their hashing technique was and how unusable the passwords could be for cybercriminals," says George Wrenn, CEO and founder of CyberSaint. "Regardless, the fact that Dell pushed for a password reset would ideally block that risk. It is clear that Dell is aggressively dealing with the incident."  

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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