Happy World Password Day! This year’s "Hallmark-Holiday-for-Password-Maintenance," May 2, coincides with the commemoration of another event: the 40-year anniversary of then 16-year-old Kevin Mitnick's infamous hack on Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Posing as a system developer, Mitnick stole login credentials for the Ark computer system. He achieved this by successfully phishing for credentials, allowing him and his associates unfettered access to the system to exfiltrate source code and other software.
If Mitnick's associates hadn't reported the crime to the police, the credential theft may never have been solved. Labeled as "cyberspace's most wanted" by The New York Times, Mitnick and his escapades offer an important reminder that — despite overwhelming evidence and decades-long efforts to improve front-line security — passwords are ineffective against cyberattacks. It's long past the time that we adopt smarter, better security solutions.
The purpose of World Password Day, as the official site says, is "to raise awareness about the critical need for good passwords." If the daily deluge of data breach stories in the media isn't evidence enough, consider this statistic, from "Shape Security's 2019 Credential Spill Report": In 2017, more than 2.3 billion credentials from 51 different organizations were reported compromised.
Fighting a Losing Battle
Fast forward to March 2019, and despite repeated urgent warnings to deploy stronger controls whenever a data breach occurs, the Identity Theft Research Center (ITRC) recorded 79 data breaches exposing 3.3 million sensitive records. Leading causes include unauthorized access, hacking, and employee error or negligence. Indeed, World Password Day feels more like the 1993 time-loop movie Groundhog Day; despite countless warnings to strengthen our passwords, we repeatedly experience credential-related breaches nearly every day.
When looking for reasons, four issues stand out.
Reason 1: Too Many Reused, Easy Passwords
"123456," "123456789," "qwerty," and "password" remain the most popular password choices — and people use them over and over again. According to the UK's National Cyber Security Center (NCSC), password reuse is the norm: More than 50% of all users rely on the same password to log in to multiple accounts, with many toggling between consumer sites and corporate systems.
It's easy to blame lazy users for the problem. But the truth is, the industry expects a lot from individuals, who are continually asked to create longer, more complex passwords with a mix of symbols, cases, and numbers — making them even harder to remember. Password managers are useful, but only 12% of Americans use one.
Reason 2: Phishing Doesn't Need a License
Phishing lures from fake invoices, bogus email delivery failure notices, file-sharing services, ersatz legal notices, and financial services notices remain the leading method of attack according to "Symantec's 2018 Internet Security Threat Report." People are still clicking on them despite widespread educational efforts across enterprises, industries, and social networks.
Reason 3: Corporate Negligence
Just this year alone, Facebook revealed that hundreds of millions of passwords in plain text were accessible to over 20,000 employees — and a few weeks later admitted that millions of Instagram passwords were also exposed.
Even more insidious is that individuals and groups openly sell stolen passwords and email addresses. In January, cybersecurity researcher Troy Hunt disclosed that nearly three-quarters of a billion email addresses and 21 million passwords were available on a hacker forum. A study by Google puts the number of credentials available on the black market at almost 2 billion. Concerned Internet users can see if their password has been exposed on Pnwed Passwords, which provides a database of more than a half-billion real-world passwords previously exposed in data breaches.
Reason 4: The Growing Epidemic of Credential Stuffing
Then there's the matter of credential stuffing, the process of acquiring a cache of previously stolen credentials and using them, often in an automated fashion, to gain unauthorized access to a resource. It is a popular technique for attackers to break into both consumer and enterprise accounts because people often reuse passwords across multiple accounts.
Bottom line: The continued reliance on passwords is not sustainable and has utterly failed us. Passwords are an outdated authentication method and consistently proven ineffective in today's threat landscape.
Once upon a time, passwords were cool and had a purpose. Prohibition-era speakeasies come to mind. In 1932, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) may have been the very first analog-style phisher when he duped Baravelli the Ice Man (Chico Marx) into giving him permission to enter a party in a delightful scene from the 1932 comedy Horse Feathers. At the end of the film, once inside the party, Prof. Wagstaff wisely changes the password, aware that Baravelli already knew it. Then, he forgets it.
In our digital lives, we follow the same ridiculous paradigm, only with far graver consequences. While we've spent decades trying to fortify our passwords with bolt-on solutions, attackers have always found ways to defeat them. World Password Day, while likely well-intentioned, shows just how urgently we must move on and kick our addiction to passwords. Let's use the day to take an enlightened approach to truly protect our identities.
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