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12/17/2010
10:35 AM
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Password Diversity Urged In Wake Of Gawker Attack

One of biggest threats is reuse of hacked credentials on other websites

As the fallout continues from the breach at Gawker.com that compromised 1.5 million accounts, authentication experts say the incident is a good warning for Gawker users and everyone else to better manage their passwords across Internet accounts.

According to security professionals, some of the biggest risks posed by this latest breach aren't from sensitive data being gleaned from Gawker data stores, but instead from repeated attacks elsewhere using the same username and password combinations in other sensitive locations.

"As far as value to the attackers, these credentials, as well as the credentials for other systems or intelligence that could lead to a repeat intrusion are the primary target," Seth Hanford, operations team lead for IntelliShield, wrote on the Cisco Security Blog. "Not because Gawker and its related web entities are so valuable, but because human nature remains what it is, and passwords are continually reused from site to site."

The proliferation of social media and Web 2.0 sites with protected content and comment boards requiring a log-in has certainly added more strain to the typical user's memory capacity for passwords. While the first impulse might be to reuse passwords, this can only complicate matters if a single credential is uncovered by bad actors.

Most hackers know how rampant password reuse is and will frequently take lists of credentials they've gleaned from breaches, such as those at Gawker, and cross-reference them against banking and financial website log-in pages.

"People must understand that once you provide a password to any Internet site, you are no longer able to protect it," says Thom VanHorn, vice president of global marketing for AppSec. "Yes, those social networks have a responsibility to implement proper security methodologies that include vulnerability assessment and database activity monitoring, but as an individual you also have a responsibility to use common sense and create complex and secure passwords, and vary your password with each different site."

Security adherents urge Gawker users to not only change their Gawker credentials, but any other credential that shares the same username and password. Because the hackers that stole the Gawker information has published the credentials publicly, any enterprising hacker in search of an easy score can utilize that information elsewhere.

In the future, if coming up with unique passwords for every account you have seems daunting, then consider at least prioritizing when you register.

"As stupid as this suggestion sounds, I have three levels of passwords. For sites where I don't care if my credentials are compromised, I use dumb passwords. For areas of reputation, I use a real unique password, but easy to remember and shared," says Phil Lieberman, president of identity management firm Lieberman Software. "For financial systems, I use different passwords that are strong and not guessable. Consequently, a breach on a social site cannot lead to financial loss using this strategy."

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