12/22/2010
09:40 AM

Schwartz On Security: Don't Get Hacked For the Holidays

The Gawker data breach highlights how few companies employ passwords for security, and how many Web site users treat them as little more than a nuisance.



Changed your password for Gawker, or on any of the other 20 Web sites for which you employ the same password? Make it a pre-2011 resolution.

Earlier this month, more than 1.3 million Gawker Media accounts -- including ones at Gawker, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, and Fleshbot -- were exposed by attackers, together with 540,000 related e-mail addresses, plus choice internal Gawker communications.

Not all Gawker passwords, which were encrypted, got cracked and released by attackers -- just the weak ones, of which there were plenty to go around. According to an analysis published by the Wall Street Journal, many Gawker users share an unhealthy affinity for mind-numbingly simple passwords.

Indeed, as gleaned from the 188,279 Gawker Media passwords that were exposed, here were the most popular choices: 123456, password, 12345678, lifehack, qwerty, abc123, 111111, monkey, consumer, and 12345. While all Gawker passwords had been encrypted, many were easily cracked by attackers. On the flipside, however, the data is not a true, representative sample of all passwords selected, since longer and less easy-to-guess passwords apparently weren't cracked by attackers.

Interestingly, many people's password choices are quite consistent with the results of a study released by Imperva in January 2010. Imperva analyzed the 32 million passwords exposed during the Rockyou.com breach, and found that the most popular were: 123456, 12345, 123456789, Password, iloveyou, princess, and rockyou.

According to Imperva, "nearly 50% of users used names, slang words, dictionary words or trivial passwords -- consecutive digits, adjacent keyboard keys, and so on."

In addition, many people were recycling their passwords ad infinitum. As a result, according to a statement made at the time by Imperva CTO Amichai Shulman, "employees using the same passwords on Facebook that they use in the workplace bring the possibility of compromising enterprise systems with insecure passwords, especially if they are using easy to crack passwords."



But what's also fascinating, he said, is that when it comes to poor password selection, "the problem has changed very little over the past 20 years."

In fact, a 1990 study of Unix password selection found quite similar results to Imperva’s study. Of course, the equation since then has changed, as Shulman noted. Get your Gawker password hacked, and if it's the same as your Gmail, Amazon and Facebook passwords, you could be in for embarrassment, if not trouble.

The frequency with which people do reuse passwords was further highlighted, indirectly, by the Gawker attackers. Notably, they publicized their attack by finding Gawker passwords that also allowed them to log into people's Twitter and Facebook accounts, because they’d recycled the same password. Furthermore, Twitter traced at least one spam attack to the stolen Gawker credentials.

Perhaps unrelated Web sites can't force users to choose different passwords, but why don't they at least force users or customers to choose stronger ones?

Well, as the ninth most popular Gawker password highlights, Web site users are first and foremost consumers, and corporate password requirements reflect this. Namely, Web sites don't want to scare away users -- who generate advertising revenue -- or customers.

In fact, passwords are often a marketing Trojan horse, or maybe not even that subtle. According to a paper delivered at the ninth annual Workshop on the Economics of Information Security at Harvard University, passwords are often employed "primarily for psychological reasons, both as a justification for collecting marketing data, and as a way to build trusted relationships with customers." Note that the word "security" is lacking from that equation.

This commercial reality was also highlighted during the Gawker debacle, in internal company communications leaked by attackers. Notably, after Gawker employees determined that their Web site and systems had been exploited and monitored for at least a month, they thought the breach was confined solely to the names of people who'd commented on content. "Just the peasants?" asked Gawker's Richard Lawson. Yes, came the answer. Only, no.

Ironically, one of the best guides to using strong passwords was published four years ago by Lifehacker. The first piece of advice? "Don't use the same password for everything." Perhaps the second should have been: Don't be a peasant.

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