How a Password-Free World Could Have Prevented the Biggest Breaches of 2019

If history has taught us anything, it's that hackers can (and will) compromise passwords. Innovation in authentication technology is poised to change that in the coming year.

Ori Eisen, Founder & CEO at Trusona

December 19, 2019

5 Min Read

When it comes to the frequency of cybersecurity incidents, we may be heading into uncharted territory: So far, 2019 is on track to be the "worst year on record," according to the most recent research from Risk Based Security. There have been more than 5,180 breaches within the first nine months of this year (up from 3,886 within the same time period in 2018), with nearly 8 billion records lost (up from about 3.8 billion within the same time period last year).

Not surprisingly, three of five breaches involve the compromise of password credentials, which provide a constant entry point for cybercriminals. According to research from HSB, personal data — addresses, phone numbers, credit card account information — remains a prime target, with 39% of consumers surveyed reporting that they've fallen victim to these attacks.

Five incidents from the past year made for some of the biggest headlines in cybersecurity news. With each one involving the exposure of password credentials and/or personal data, we see that no company or individual is immune — not the CEO of a social media giant or an entertainment industry icon or a beloved donut shop brand:

• Disney+: In November, less than a week after the world debut of Disney+, thousands of hijacked accounts were offered for sale in cybercriminal marketplaces. Password reuse (account owners using passwords they use for other services) led to the bulk of the compromises. Via credential stuffing, hackers take a set of usernames/passwords that were leaked in prior breaches, then apply them to another service to try and gain access. The practice has grown to epidemic proportions, as Akamai recorded more than 61 billion credential-stuffing attempts from January 2018 through June 2019.

• AT&T: A Torrance, Calif., man filed a lawsuit in October against AT&T, accusing the carrier's employees of helping hackers rob him of $1.8 million worth of cryptocurrency. The incident was linked to a "SIM-swapping" scheme, in which attackers take control of a victim's phone number by convincing a target's carrier to switch their subscriber identity module (SIM) to a SIM card in a device under the attackers' control. In some cases, they pay phone company employees to make the switches. With this, they gain access to an abundance of personal data and applications associated with the victim's phone.

• Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey: An anonymous hacker took over Dorsey's Twitter account briefly in August to tweet bomb threats and racist posts. This breach was also linked to SIM swapping. In many SIM-swapping cases, hackers will get the phone numbers by calling a customer help line for a phone carrier while pretending to be the victim. Once hackers have control of a phone number, they will often call a service like Twitter and ask for a temporary login code, commonly sent to their device via text.

• Microsoft Office 365: Barracuda Networks reported in May that hackers compromised the Office 365 accounts of three of 10 organizations in March alone, and then sent 1.5 million malicious and spam emails. Again, many of the incidents were linked to the stealing of login credentials from the databases of prior breaches, which were published in criminal forums — that is, credential stuffing.

• Dunkin' Donuts: The company announced in February — for the second time in three months — that hackers used credential stuffing to access customer "DD Perks" awards accounts, selling the accounts on Dark Web forums.

These five incidents illustrate the emergence of credential stuffing and SIM swapping as two increasingly formidable attack methods. They also demonstrate that our continued reliance on passwords leaves us more vulnerable than ever. For as long as they have existed, cybercriminals have successfully used stolen passwords to "unlock the door" of an enterprise network or personal account and do pretty much whatever they want once inside. With new innovations in authentication technologies, there really is no need for traditional login processes anymore. [Editor's note: Trusona is one of several vendors that markets passwordless authentication technology.] In fact, here's how a password-free world would prevent both of these two common attack methods entirely:

Credential stuffing: This is essentially a volume play, as cyber crooks grab a big bag of stolen or leaked usernames/passwords and throw them at numerous websites and applications to see which ones stick. Obviously, without passwords, there would be no credential stuffing. Enterprises would benefit from strongly considering the use of websites, online services, and mobile apps for their users/employees that do not have a login field, embracing alternatives such as biometrics, QR codes, and certificate-based authentication.

SIM swapping: After gaining access to a victim's phone number, hackers will request a one-time passcode via SMS for logins associated with that number. Because the SMS travels through the telephone company network, it goes to the device that controls the stolen phone number.

But the use of push notification authentication eliminates this scenario, by sending a push notification directly to a user to alert them that someone is trying to gain authentication to their device. The user then approves or denies access. Push notifications do not travel via the telephone network; they go through the device operating system network (such as iOS or Android). Thus, the notification appears on the user's device, and not the hacker's.

It's time we recognize that today's era of breaches requires different strategies to thwart them. If past is prologue, then hackers can (and will) continue to compromise passwords. When we cut the cord and get rid of them for good, we will finally take the next, pivotal steps toward a truly protected environment for the enterprise and the individual. This sounds like a pretty good New Year's resolution to make in 2020.

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About the Author(s)

Ori Eisen

Founder & CEO at Trusona

Ori Eisen has spent the last two decades fighting online crime and holds more than two dozen cybersecurity patents. Prior to founding Trusona, he established online financial institution and e-commerce fraud prevention and detection solution 41st Parameter, acquired by Experian in 2013. Respected for his business knowledge and leadership, Mr. Eisen previously served as Worldwide Fraud Director for American Express focusing on Internet and counterfeit fraud, where he championed enhancement of the authorization request to include Internet-specific parameters. Prior to this, he was Director of Fraud Prevention for VeriSign/Network Solutions developing new and innovative technologies to successfully reduce fraud losses by more than 85% in just three months.

Mr. Eisen is a graduate of Montclair State University, with a bachelor of science degree in business administration, and a founding member of Security Canyon, Arizona's Cyber Security Coalition.

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