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Have Your Users' Passwords Already Been Hacked?

If employees use their same password at work and in their personal lives, another company's breach may weaken your own security. Five steps to mitigate the risk
Following the hack of the global intelligence firm Stratfor, hackers published the stolen password file containing the usernames and hashes for more than 860,000 accounts. An effort to use typical password breaking techniques on the file yielded quick results: About 1 in every 10 accounts had a trivial password.

While it's unknown how many account holders reused their passwords, many subscribers used e-mail addresses of their employer, suggesting the possibility that they reused reused their passwords as well. While real-world research is scarce, what little there is suggests that reuse is rampant. Following the breach of Sony's online sites last year, for example, an analysis connected a small subset of users to those whose passwords were leaked in another breach. Two-thirds reused their passwords.

For companies, password reuse weakens security and can cause a company to rely on the security of third-party firms whose security is questionable. While companies can attempt to cordon off their employees' work and personal lives, workers can inadvertently reconnect the two, says Sam Curry, chief technology officer for security giant RSA's identity and data protection business unit.

"The average person probably has one or two phones, and they probably have any number of consumer services they subscribe to and two or three machines they interact with," says Sam Curry, chief technoogy officer for RSA's identity and data protection business unit. "If the password is the same everywhere, then there are literally dozens or hundreds of places where their passwords might be cached or the hash of it might be cached."

While companies can set policy and educate their employees to use good passwords and not reuse the secret codes -- especially between business and personal sites -- information security specialists should seek other solutions, says Mark Joynes, director of product management for Entrust.

"Enterprises that are taking the matter of security seriously should not be relying on password mechanisms," says Joynes. "As a function of human nature, users will reuse passwords irrespective of the relative risk of the application."

1. Don't just educate, motivate

While education is never sufficient, considering how reliant companies are on their workers for security, educating employees is never a waste.

However, companies need to do a better job of teaching their employees and giving them incentives to do what's right. A company could, for example, give workers access to security tools and services for free.

"People are motivated by social reasons, moral reasons or financial reasons," says RSA's Curry. "Those are the levers, and like it or hate it, those are the things we can do to influence employee behavior."

2. If you must use a password, use a passphrase

For situations where the only option to secure an account is to use a password, many security experts recommend using a passphrase, consisting of three or more words put together.

A passphrase is much more difficult to brute force than a password. In its latest global threat report, security firm Trustwave found that weak passwords for administrative accounts as the No. 1 threat its analysts found during penetration tests and breach investigations. The company collected a database of 2.5 million passwords and found it could easily crack 10 percent. More than 60 percent of passwords were 60 characters or less.

"When I create passwords for all my accounts, they are very, very long, because they are passphrases, not passwords," says Nicholas J. Percoco, senior vice president of Trustwave and the head of SpiderLabs.

3. Use a second factor, even internally

One way to make the employees use of passwords less relevant to a company's security is to use a second factor of authentication.

Whether biometric, one-time password tokens or smart cards, having a second factor can make attacks much more difficult. Moreover, companies should not just use two-factor for remote access, but internally as well, says Percoco.

"In most environments, if you ask them where they use two factor, they say they do, but only for remote access," he says. "But if you have access to critical internal systems, you probably don't want them to use just a password on those systems either."

4. Be ready for a password leak

Yet, even a second factor is sometimes not enough. Companies need to be ready when one of their security measures is breached, whether through a password leak or through an attack such as the compromise of RSA's SecurID tokens.

Having an identity and access management system that can quickly revoke a certain security measure and require another option is key, says Entrust's Joynes.

"With a platform approach, where you have a variety of authenticators in play, if one authenticator becomes compromised -- whether it is a password or a token -- you can flip to something else dynamically," he says.

5. Use behavior to determine when to use additional security

Finally, watching user behavior can detect attackers who, through compromise or coercion, are able to gain access to the network.

For example, banks now look at the "velocity" of transactions on their online banking site, says Joynes. If a customer changes his or her address and then immediately does a money transfer, that raises a red flag, especially if the two transactions happen in the space of microseconds, because that's faster than a human could perform those transactions, he adds.

"By understanding the context of the transaction request, you can make a better decision about security," says Entrust's Joynes.

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