11/29/2009
07:11 PM
George V. Hulme
George V. Hulme
Commentary

Microsoft Provides Insight Into Password Attacks

For about a year now, Microsoft has been trying to gather data on real-world attacks, the types of attacks normal users might encounter in their day to day Internet use - and the software maker just released some interesting data on password attacks.



For about a year now, Microsoft has been trying to gather data on real-world attacks, the types of attacks normal users might encounter in their day to day Internet use - and the software maker just released some interesting data on password attacks.Usually, organizations choose to release information, on long holiday weekends, that they want to hide. Not the Microsoft Malware Protection Center. No. They released some very interesting data on password attacks that users should take to heart, at a time when few would be paying attention.

As part of the honeypot (a system put out there to be attacked so data can be gathered about attack trends and techniques) Microsoft collected hundreds of user names and tens of thousands of passwords used in automated attacks in the last couple of months. The attackers were targeting a fake FTP server, Microsoft says.

Here's some statistics they published in this blog post on Friday afternoon:

Longest user name: 15 chars

Longest password: 29 chars

Average user name length: 6 chars

Average password length: 8 chars

And as one would expect, some of the most common user names are not only administrator and admin, but also first names such as Andrew, dave, and steve. The two most common passwords aren't really worth having as passwords at all: password and 123456.

If your user name is easy to guess, you've already done half of the work for your adversary.

If you think some of these attackers aren't motivated, consider this, according to the Microsoft Malware Protection Center: one attacker tried more than 400,000 user name and password combinations.

The advice below, from Microsoft, has been said many times, and largely goes ignored. It's worth repeating:

You should take good care of what user name and password you're choosing. If your account has no limit on the number of login attempts, then knowing the user name is like having half of the job done. Especially for the user names from the top 10 (and mainly for the Administrator/Administrateur accounts), the passwords shouldn't be picked lightly.

Usually we choose easy to type and/or easy to remember passwords, but please don't forget that those passwords (for the moment) are the most commonly used authentication on the Internet so they need to be strong. The three basic things to remember when creating a strong password are the following:

1. Use a combination of letters, numbers and special characters. Also, remember that some dictionaries used in attacks have a "l33t" mode, which allows common letter/number-to-special character substitutions (like changing [email protected], i-1 ,o-0 and s=$, for example, password = [email protected]$$w0rd). Therefore, mix them in different ways so that they are not predictable.

2. Use a combination of upper and lower case letters.

3. Make it lengthy. A longer password does not necessarily mean it is strong but it can help in some cases.

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