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1/29/2010
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Adrian Lane
Adrian Lane
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Wiping Out Wimpy Passwords

Recent breaches at Rockyou.com and Hotmail illustrate the consistency of human behavior: Since the dawn of access control systems, users continue to choose easily guessed passwords.

Recent breaches at Rockyou.com and Hotmail illustrate the consistency of human behavior: Since the dawn of access control systems, users continue to choose easily guessed passwords.From these exploited accounts (check out Dark Reading's coverage about Rockyou.com and Hotmail), we have substantial proof that weak passwords are the norm, and that compromised accounts are used to launch subsequent phishing and malware attacks. Most security researchers know that passwords are of limited use -- even with strong passwords, keystroke loggers and phishing attacks will divulge strong and weak passwords alike. Regardless, having a slightly better password reduces the common threat of password dictionary attacks.

So how do you go about it?

As with most applications, passwords are the front line of defense for databases. All databases have features to enforce the use of strong passwords. I could detail for you the wonderful ways your database will help enforce password length and complexity, lock accounts after failed login attempts, or require password rotation. But you probably already know this. Besides, password-strength enforcement is just the starting point. If you have not turned on password complexity checkers or login triggers to verify new passwords, then stop reading this right now and go do that right now! It's free, and it's easy. And no cheating: Apply the rules to DBA and service accounts used by applications, not just end users.

Now that password controls are in place, here's what else you should do:

Training: Teach people how to create more secure passwords. Send an email, post to your internal Website, or talk to them over lunch, but give them some simple guidelines. Teach them how to pick a word or phase that is easy to remember, such as something they see visually each day, or perhaps something from their childhoods. Now show them simple substitutions of the letters with special characters and numbers.

Logging: When attempting to guess a password, normally you will fail many times before you find the right password. Simple platform or database logging captures these failed attempts, and review of the log files makes it very apparent when an account is being attacked. Turn on simple logging and, more important, review the results.

Monitoring: If someone has gotten your password, through keystroke logger, phishing, or reading the Post-It note on your desk, then none of the steps mentioned above will help. If you are worried about this, you need to use activity monitoring. Monitoring can detect compromised accounts by comparing a user's current requests with a known behavioral profile, detecting account compromises when the patterns don't match and alerting to suspicious activity.

Human behavior is unlikely to change anytime soon, and people cannot resist clicking on embedded email links that result in their machines being compromised. But a combination of password checking, training, and logging makes your access controls far more effective.

Adrian Lane is an analyst/CTO with Securosis LLC, an independent security consulting practice. Special to Dark Reading. Adrian Lane is a Security Strategist and brings over 25 years of industry experience to the Securosis team, much of it at the executive level. Adrian specializes in database security, data security, and secure software development. With experience at Ingres, Oracle, and ... View Full Bio

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