The Yahoo! Breach: What it means to you

Steps you should take after the Yahoo! breach.

yahooYesterday, Yahoo! announced that at least 500 million accounts have been breached.  This means that information you gave Yahoo! may be in the hands of hackers, but it could also mean a lot more. The New York Times has an excellent interactive tool today that demonstrates how much of your information may have leaked, not just from Yahoo! but from other breaches.

Not only should people change their Yahoo! passwords, but it is also important for people to review all passwords and information shared with Yahoo!  In particular:

  1. Many people use the same password across multiple accounts.  If you did this, you should change passwords on all systems where that password was used.  When you do, you should see to it that no passwords are shared between two systems.
  2. Hackers are smart.  If you only tweak the same password just a little bit for use on multiple systems, a determined hacker or more likely a determined script may well break into other accounts.  For example, if your Yahoo! password was DogCatY! and your E-Bay Password were DogCatEBay, you should assume the E-Bay account is broken as well.
  3. This means you should keep a secure record of what passwords are used where, for just this sort of eventuality.  By “secure” I mean encrypted and local.  Having two pristine USB keys (one for backup) is ideal, where the contents are encrypted at the application layer.  I also make use of Firefox’s password manager.  That in itself is a risk, because if Firefox is hacked your passwords may be gone as well.
  4. Unfortunately passwords may not be the only information hackers have. Yahoo! has previously made use of so-called “backup security questions”.  Not only is it important to disable those questions, but it is important to first review them to see where else you may have used them.  Security questions are a horrible idea for many reasons: they may reveal private aspects of your life, much of which might be discovered anyway.  Sites like United Airlines recently implemented security questions.  My recommendation: choose random answers and record them in a secure place that is separate from your passwords.
  5. It is possible that hackers may have read any email you received on Yahoo!  In particular, one should review any financial accounts where information is transmitted to Yahoo!
  6. Use of cloud-based storage as a backup for your passwords should be viewed with great suspicion.  There have been a number of such tools that themselves have been found to be vulnerable.
  7. Hackers may have your cell phone number, for those who use SMS as secondary authentication.  While SMS is not secure communication, the chances of it being hacked are relatively low.  The safest practice is not to rely solely on SMS for authentication.  My bank uses both a secret and an SMS message, relying on the tried and true two-factor authentication approach of something you have and something you know.  A better solution is a secret and an app with a secure push notification.  This is what MasterCard has done in Europe.

These suggestions are good for the sort of mass breach that we are seeing with Yahoo!  In addition, one has to be careful with the amount of trust placed in a cell phone.  If the phone is lost, you should assume that hackers will be able to get into it.  Keeping a record of the applications you use, particularly those that have financial or security implications, will help you recover from the loss.

These suggestions are written with the notion that Yahoo! is not going to be the only site that will have had this problem.  Although not to this scale, we’ve seen this sort of thing before, and we will see it again.  I’ll have more to say about this from an industry perspective in a while.

Yahoo picture by Sebastian Bergmann – originally posted to Flickr as Yahoo!, CC BY-SA 2.0

Wrap-up of this year’s WEIS

This year’s Workshop on the Economics of Information Security (WEIS2010) enlightened us about Identity, privacy, and the insecurity of the financial payment system, just to name a few presentaitons.

Every year I attend a conference called the Workshop on Economics of Information Security (WEIS), and every year I learn quite a bit from the experience.  This year was no exception.  The conference represents an interdisciplinary approach to Cybersecurity that includes economists, government researchers, industry, and of course computer scientists.  Run by friend and luminary Bruce Schneier, Professor Ross Anderson from Cambridge University, and this year with chairs Drs. Tyler Moore and Allan Friedman, the conference includes an eclectic mix of work on topics such as the cyber-insurance (usually including papers from field leader Professor Rainer Böhme, soon of University of Münster), privacy protection, user behavior, and understanding of the underground economy, this year’s conference had a number of interesting pieces of work.  Here are a few samples:

  • Guns, Privacy, and Crime, by Allesandro Acquisti (CMU) and Catherine Tucker (MIT), provides an insight into how addresses of gun permit applicants posted on a Tennessee website does not really impact their security one way or another, contrary to arguments made by politicians.
  • Is the Internet for Porn? An Insight Into the Online Adult Industry – Gilbert Wondracek, Thorsten Holz, Christian Platzer, Engin Kirda and Christopher Kruegel provides a detailed explanation of the technology used to support the Internet Porn industry, in which it claims provides over $3,000 a second in revenue.
  • The password thicket: technical and market failures in human authentication on the web – Joseph Bonneau and Sören Preibusch (Cambridge) talks about just how poorly many websites manage all of those passwords we reuse.
  • A panel on the credit card payment system, together with a presentation that demonstrated that even credit cards with chips and pins are not secure.  One of the key messages from the presentation was that open standards are critically important to security.
  • On the Security Economics of Electricity Metering – Ross Anderson and Shailendra Fuloria (Cambridge) discussed the various actors in the Smart Grid, their motivations, and some recommendations on the regulatory front.

The papers are mostly available at the web site, as are the presentations.  This stuff is important.  It informs industry as to what behaviors are both rewarding and provide for the social good, as well as where we see gaps or need of improvement in our public policies, especially where technology is well ahead of policy makers’ thinking.

Financial Institutions and Passwords

You would think that financial institutions would want individuals to choose really strong passwords that are difficult to guess.  But in at least one very big case, you would be wrong.  What makes a strong password?  Several things:

  • A lot of characters.  The more the merrier.  The only limitation on this is that you have to remember All of That.
  • A lot of randomness.  That is, words in a dictionary are bad, because attackers will often go through dictionaries to attempt to guess passwords.
  • Characters that are not letters or numbers.  This increases the search space, given a certain sized password.

Now let’s review the actual guidance given by a very popular broker:

Your new password must:

  • Include 6-8 characters AND numbers
  • Include at least one number BETWEEN the first and last characters
  • Contain no symbols (!,%,# etc.)
  • Cannot match or be a subset of your Login ID

Examples of valid passwords: kev6in, 2be111, wil1iam

In other words, they’re violating two very big rules.  The 6-8 character rule means that they are limiting the search space, and people cannot put together phrases, which are actually easier to remember than passwords.  Removal of symbols from the search space makes it easier for attackers to perform a dictionary attack.

This site is not alone.  Many sites have the same problem, and it is likely a problem with what their security professionals think is the industry standard.  Well it’s a bad standard.  Who takes on the risk?  In the brokerage world, the chances are that you are assuming at least some risk.

Can The Industry Stop break-ins on Facebook?

FacebookAfter my last post, a reasonable question is whether we in the industry have been goofing off on the job.  After all, how could it be that someone got their account broken into?  Everyone knows that passwords are a weak form of authentication.  Most enterprises won’t allow it for employee access, and we would string a bank CSO up by his or her toenails if a bank only used passwords to access your information. They use at a bear minimum RSA one time password tokens or perhaps Smart Cards.  So why are the rules different for Facebook?

They would say, I’m sure, that they do not hold the keys to your financial data.  Only that may not be true.  Have you entered credit card details into Facebook?  Then in that case maybe they do hold the keys to your financial data.  Even if you haven’t entered any financial data into Facebook?  Are you using the same password for Facebook that you are for your financial institution?  Many people are, and that is the problem.

Passwords have become, for want of a better term, an attractive nuisance.  It’s not that the concept itself is terrible, but they are increasingly difficult to secure, as the number of accounts that people hold continues to skyrocket.  Yes, the problem is getting worse, not better.  My favorite example is the latest update to the Wall Street Journal iPhone app, where the upgrade description says, “Application Enhancements to Add Free Registration & the Ability for Subscribers and Users to Login”.  What a lovely enhancement.  Right up there with enhancing the keyboard I am typing on to give me electric shocks.

Facebook is at least making a feeble attempt to get around this problem by offering OpenID access in some limited way (I tried using it from this site, and FB is broken, even though I can get into all sorts of other sites, including LiveJournal).  Still, it probably works for you if you are a Google, Yahoo!, or MySpace user, but for better or worse those sites themselves do not accept OpenID.  (The better part is that no one can simply break into one account and gain access to all of these other sites.  The worse part is that if you have some other OpenID, you can’t use it with these sites.)

OpenID has lots of problems, the biggest of which is that there is no standard privileged interface to the user.  This is something that Google, Yahoo!, and MySpace might actually like, because it means that they provide the interface they want to provide.  Unfortunately, programs, or more precisely the authors of programs, might find that a little irritating, since OpenID is so closely tied to the web that it is difficult to use for other applications (like email).

SAML and Higgins to the rescue?  OAUTH?  Blech.