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Replacing a Hacked Password

HackI just received a couple of spam emails from a friend who had had her email account hacked. The hacker sent the spam to everyone on her contact list. Here's what I told her:

First, replace your old password!

Second, choose a password that can't be guessed based on text in your emails!

Third, write down the password. Keep that piece of paper till you remember the password without looking.

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Passwords and Entropy

Entropy with decimal diceMy friend and colleague Al Dowd pointed me to Troy Hunt's blog post last April on password entropy.

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"Cracking" Passwords

There's been buzz in computer hardware blogs over the past few days about how faster processors (and GPUs in particular) are rendering strong passwords "useless." One experimenter, named Vijay Devakumar, posted a description of his success at cracking passwords, which has been recently picked up by bloggers on

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Russian spycraft ain't what it used to be

A wise note written by Johannes Ulrich of SANS Institute outlines cyber security lessons from the recent russian spy arrests. Clearly, information security tradecraft has not made its way into spy schools, at least not in Russia.

A lot of their failures trace back to a stealth search warrant a few years back that netted an encrypted drive. One of the agents fortunately noticed the slip of paper with an obscure set of letters and numbers: the written password.

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9-year-old hacks the school superintendent

Jeremy Epstein reported this terrific report to Peter Neumann's Risks List: a school kid logged in as superintendent of schools. This was in Fairfax County, where I grew up. They use Blackboard, just like the college where I teach.

And yes, we're talking about a nine-year-old. It turned out to be a security policy problem. A teacher can add a student to a class, and a teacher has the power to change a student's password.

The kid found out his teacher's Blackboard password. They don't say how in the news, but it may have been written on a post-it, or some other piece of paper, or it may be the same as a password the kid watched the teacher use somewhere else, or it could just be an easy-to-guess choice.

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RockYou and Password Choices

A social networking site called Rockyou.Com was hacked a few months ago, and someone was thoughtful enough to tell them about it in December. After some dithering, they announced it to their user community.

Unfortunately, they were trying to do site aggregation stuff - using other site login credentials to link that site to theirs. All very Web 2.0. All very dangerous, especially since passwords were stored in plaintext. Thus, the attackers collected 32 million user login credentials: ids, passwords, e-mail addresses. This was courtesy of a cross site scripting vulnerability.

John, a former colleague, sent me a note about a security group named Imperva that analyzed the list of passwords.

The actual report is poorly drafted - you can't tell how much of the database they really analyzed, or how they chose a set to analyze. However, it seems that they analyzed a sampling of the passwords and compiled a list of the 5,000 most common ones. Which they didn't share. They did share a list of the 20 most common: the most common word was "Password" while "princess" and "Nicole" were the most common names.

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Managing Your Passwords

In 2009, another blogger posted an article on password problems that suggests 10 hard-to-follow rules.

The author highlights an important problem: attackers can do systematic trial-and-error guessing attacks against on-line sites. She focuses on a Google Gmail problem recently reported on Full Disclosure.

Here's the point: use strong protection on high-value targets. Take the time to protect your major e-mail account, your financial resources, and anything else you really value. If you're going to slack off, do it when registering to post a one-off blog comment.

Let me take a stab at my own list of recommendations.

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Password Recovery Speeds

Ivan Lucas of "" has posted an interesting summary of Password Recovery Speeds. These are scaled on the assumption that the attacker will do trial-and-error attempts of all possible permutations.
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Password Resetting Considered Harmful - duh!

It used to be that the default password was your mother's maiden name, your SSN, your birthdate, or something like that. Now you have to pick a password, and your 'password recovery' questions are based on those old stand-by questions. So you can still break in to a person's accounts by answering those classic questions.

There have been some interesting recent reports about the use of personal questions for password resetting, and Bob Sullivan has summarized them in a recent posting.

This problem will only disappear over time, as people learn how NOT to lose security credentials.

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Passwords, Open ID, and "Information Cards"

Randall Stross/Digital Domain has posted a NYT story on passwords, Open ID, and Information Cards.

The "Information Card Foundation" is only a few weeks old, and the technique is trying to solve problems with both passwords and with Open ID. The posting roasts the old chestnuts about how bad passwords are (does anyone really need convincing?), then roasts Open ID a bit, and then introduces Information Cards, a slightly more flexible but still vulnerable technology.

Personally, I'm not convinced that Information Cards are any safer or easier to use than Open ID can be.

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