The breach of a reported 6.5 million LinkedIn passwords last week is a prime example of what at least initially appears to be a failure at three levels: in policy, in practice, and in communication.
LinkedIn, which doesn’t have a chief information officer, much less a chief information security officer, clearly applied what appears to be a substandard policy to securing passwords of users, many of which may be high-value targets in and of themselves given the power and influence of many of the professionals associated with those access codes. The breach, which was discovered when the passwords showed up on a Russian hacking forum last week, exposed whatever cryptographic controls the social business network used to secure the passwords was far too simplistic.
Communications from LinkedIn about the breach were also unclear. In a blog post written by Vicente Silveira, a director at the company, LinkedIn admitted that “a small subset of the hashed passwords was decoded and published.” It wasn’t able to quantify how many. While the company is investigating the incident, the company’s ambiguity about the breach -- or apparent security expertise or leadership -- is hardly a confidence-inducing move. In the meantime, LinkedIn cancelled the passwords it believed were “at the greatest risk.” Also in a somewhat confusing move, the company says it “is disabling the passwords of any other members that we believe could potentially be affected.”
LinkedIn dug a deeper hole for itself by admitting that it isn’t sure whether any other data was compromised. Nor apparently does the company seem to understand that just because the hackers haven’t apparently been able to crack the cryptographic code for all the passwords that they won’t be able to do so eventually. After all, they have the most important element in their possession already: the passwords themselves.
Most data breaches like the one that befell LinkedIn are too commonplace to make headlines. What distinguished this from the run-of-the-mill password hack attack was the target. Essentially, the breach revealed surprisingly poorly executed security controls by a company that until now has been trusted by millions of professionals to keep them connected.
If anything positive comes of the incident, it is that it serves a reminder to everyone about the importance of being vigilant about managing their own passwords well. Simple tips like resetting passwords frequently and not reusing passwords can go a long way toward protecting their data, and with it, their identities.
Amy DeCarlo is principal analyst for security and data center services at Current Analysis