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5 Ways To Solve The Password Reset Problem

Apple, Amazon, and other vendors need to come up with better ways to safeguard accounts against social engineering attacks. But users must help.

Mathew J. Schwartz

August 14, 2012

5 Min Read

Technology companies and retailers that sell goods and services to consumers--including cell phone plans, books and music, online file-storage lockers, and cloud-based collaboration software--have a password security problem.

The nature of the problem was highlighted by the recent hack of technology journalist Mat Honan, who saw his laptop, tablet, and smartphone get remotely wiped by an attacker--dubbed "Phobia"--who was trying to keep Honan from regaining access to the three-letter Twitter account ("mat") that Phobia hacked for fun.

In today's ultra-connected digital world, Honan's fatal information security flaw was to have left a single point of failure--a Gmail account tied to an iCloud account--that Phobia was able to compromise. True, Phobia first socially engineered Amazon into providing the information he needed to impersonate Honan with Apple (name, address, and last four digits of the credit card on file), before resetting passwords and "owing" Honan's digital life.

But this security issue isn't limited to the companies that featured in that life hack of Honan. "Everyone is pointing the finger at Amazon and Apple, saying it's a big security hole, they need to make changes. But I don't look at it that way--if it's a security hole, it affects a lot more companies than Amazon," says the threat intelligence manager for Trustwave SpiderLabs, who goes by "Space Rogue," speaking by phone. Indeed, most companies will reset users' passwords by phone, provided you know a user's name, address, and the last four digits of their on-file credit card number. Most banks, meanwhile, require the last four digits of a person's social security number, instead of their credit card.

[ Get more good advice. Read 8 Ways To Avoid Getting Your Life Hacked. ]

Given that lackluster state of consumer identity verification, here are five must-have password security practices that every company and consumer should practice:

1. Deploy background-verification security checks.

To make it more difficult for social engineers to successfully impersonate consumers, more companies have been validating people's identity by asking such questions as, "Which of the following five addresses is associated with your name?"

Such security checks are enabled via services that first comb publicly available information to find "digital fingerprints" that are likely associated with a specific person. One such service is RSA Identity Verification, which RSA bills as "dynamic, knowledge-based authentication to validate user identities and reduce the risk of identity impersonation and fraud."

2. Employ "do it yourself" secret questions.

Too many businesses ask people the same questions: mother's maiden name, or the name of their first school, town in which they were born, or favorite pet. Why not shake things up? "My cell phone company, if I call up AT&T, and ask to make a change to my account, they ask for a secret password--they have a password they asked for when I created my account that's 'secret' and which I provided when I first set up the account," says Space Rogue.

3. Resets trigger massive warnings.

Want to change your password? Then the service in question should blast a password-reset warning to every device you own. "Ideally, before resetting a password by phone, they'd send a forced 'Find My'-style push alert to all registered devices on the account saying something like, "Apple Customer Service has received a request to reset your iCloud password. Please call 1-800-WHATEVER within 24 hours if this is unauthorized," says Marco Arment, the co-founder of Tumblr, in a blog post. As that suggests, he also recommends that anyone who wants to rest a password by phone be made to wait 24 hours, to give ample time to alert potential victims.

4. Consumers: Use lots of different credit cards.

One way that Phobia was able to successfully hack Honan was thanks to Honan having used the same credit card at Apple and Amazon. By seeing the last four digits of the card--displayed by Amazon, when users access their account--Phobia was then able to provide it to Apple to authenticate himself as Honan. "If the card [Honan] stored with Amazon didn't match the card stored with Apple, the attack would have stopped here," says Rob Sobers, technical manager at Varonis Systems, via email. To help prevent such attacks, he says, "you could dedicate a single purpose credit card for Apple."

"Personally I use a different credit card and email address at Paypal, Amazon, and Apple," says Trustwave's Space Rogue. "It isn't foolproof but it does make things more difficult."

5. Consumers: Enable two-factor Gmail authentication.

While Gmail featured in the hack of Honan, he notably didn't have two-factor authentication turned on. But if he had, it would likely have blocked the attacker. In fact, Space Rogue specifically recommends that all Gmail users employ their accounts for any services that are tied to bank or credit card accounts, such as Amazon or online banking, thanks to the added security. "Use Gmail as the address for any accounts that can access money and turn on the free two-factor authentication they offer," he says. Also don't forget to use different passwords for every one of those sites too.

But too many sites--including Amazon and Apple--still don't offer two-factor authentication. While it's not a silver bullet, it would be better than the current username and password protection both sites offer.

Amazon and Apple are both reportedly revisiting their password-reset practices, but many more companies will have to pursue similar changes to protect their customers from "life hack" attacks. Beyond the above five recommendations, what should all businesses be doing--or doing better--to safeguard consumers' identities?

One of the biggest challenges facing IT today is risk assessment. Risk measurement and impact assessment aren't exact sciences, but there are tools, processes, and principles that can be leveraged to ensure that organizations are well-protected and that senior management is well-informed. In our Measuring Risk: A Security Pro's Guide report, we recommend tools for evaluating security risks and provide some ideas for effectively putting the resulting data into business context. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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