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Posts Tagged ‘encryption’

What’s with the TrueCrypt warning?

June 1, 2014 1 comment

TrueCrypt, the free open source full disk encryption program favoured by many security-savvy people, including apparently Edward Snowden, is no more. Its website now redirects to its SourceForge page which starts with this message:

WARNING: Using TrueCrypt is not secure as it may contain unfixed security issues

This page exists only to help migrate existing data encrypted by TrueCrypt.

The development of TrueCrypt was ended in 5/2014 after Microsoft terminated support of Windows XP. Windows 8/7/Vista and later offer integrated support for encrypted disks and virtual disk images. Such integrated support is also available on other platforms (click here for more information). You should migrate any data encrypted by TrueCrypt to encrypted disks or virtual disk images supported on your platform.

This statement is so full of problems it is difficult to know where to start.

Is it a canary?
Canaries are warnings by a different method (if a canary died in a mine, the likelihood was that poison gas, otherwise yet undetected, was present). So one suggestion is that this message indicates government interference, and like Levison and Lavabit, it has been shut down to protect the users. (Levison said, “I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit.”) Some have gone so far as to suggest a more explicit warning in TrueCrypt’s first paragraph: “not secure as”.

BitLocker

Microsoft’s BitLocker disk encryption

But for me the strongest suggestion that this might be a canary warning is the recommendation for Microsoft’s BitLocker. The message says “You should migrate any data encrypted by TrueCrypt to encrypted disks or virtual disk images supported on your platform.” It then proceeds to give a step-by-step how-to for migrating to BitLocker.

My problem is two-fold. Firstly, I find it difficult to believe that the developers of open-source cryptography would voluntarily recommend placing faith in a closed-source solution — and one from Microsoft to boot. Secondly, BitLocker gives up the ground won with such difficulty during the First Crypto Wars against Clinton’s Clipper chip and key escrow demands — BitLocker escrows the keys either with the IT department or with Microsoft’s cloud services. From both locations, using the PATRIOT Act, government agencies can retrieve those keys effectively on demand. This recommendation doesn’t make sense from a purely ‘security’ viewpoint.

Against this, however, we should note that ‘David’ (apparently a or the TrueCrypt developer) has told @stevebarnhart that there has been no government contact except one time inquiring about a ‘support contract'; that “BitLocker is ‘good enough’ and Windows was original ‘goal of the project';” and that “There is no longer interest.” But whether ‘David’ is who he says he is, or whether what he says is true is anyone’s guess.

I find myself conflicted. This time my heart says, don’t think conspiracy; but my head says, this isn’t right.

What next?
For whatever reason, TrueCrypt can no longer be trusted. If we take David at face value, he has simply lost interest in the project and bowed out in a most unsatisfactory manner. That would imply that you can carry on using TrueCrypt; but that like XP, any future issues will not be resolved. So it’s probably best not to wait for them.

But if you were savvy enough to install TrueCrypt you will be savvy enough to migrate to an alternative without being persuaded into using BitLocker. BitLocker works with the Trusted Platform Module (TPM), a motherboard chip that to my mind turns Windows 8 into an NSA trojan. (See Is Windows 8 an NSA trojan?) This latest development merely reinforces my opinion.

It would be tempting to say it is time to migrate away from Windows altogether — perhaps to Linux. The reality, however, is that nothing is secure. What can be made by software can be unmade by software; that which can be built by computer power can be demolished by computer power. The unmakers have a thousand times the resources of the makers.

The solution is political, not technological. We the people have to reassert our role over the politicians. They are our servants. We pay them to do our bidding. And we have to make it absolutely clear that government interference and surveillance is unacceptable and must stop.

Categories: All, Politics, Security Issues

The eBay hack, the loss of 140 million records, and the PR fiasco

May 23, 2014 1 comment
Ebay – hacked on Wednesday

Ebay – hacked on Wednesday

There are two functions to PR: the first is to shout the good news from the hilltops, while the second is to bury the bad. When bad news hits, PR says very little.

Bad news has hit eBay. It admitted Wednesday that it had been hacked – but it actually gives very little information. This is a mistake. It means that people will comb their words used looking for clues over what has actually happened. The result is conjecture; but what follows is the conjecture of some very clever security people.

Three things leap out from the eBay statement. The first is the repeated use of the word ‘encrypted’, with no mention of hashing for the passwords. The second is the duration of the breach – it occurred in February/March, but was only discovered a couple of weeks ago. And the third is the mention of the database – not part of, nor a geographical region, but the (whole?) database. So what can we surmise from all this?

Ian Pratt, co-founder of Bromium

Ian Pratt, co-founder of Bromium

Firstly, were the passwords encrypted or hashed? It makes a difference. The implication from the statement is that they were encrypted. Most security experts believe that this would be a mistake – passwords should be hashed and salted. In fact, Ian Pratt, co-founder of Bromium, goes so far as to suggest, “It would be rather unusual to encrypt passwords rather than hash them; it’s probably just lack of precision in the statement.”

But that’s what we said about the Adobe breach – and it turned out that the passwords were indeed encrypted rather than hashed. The opinion among the experts I talked to is fairly evenly balanced – while eBay’s semantics suggest they used encryption, many experts find it hard to believe. “This heavily implies that the passwords were not hashed,” said Chris Oakley, principle security consultant at Nettitude. “eBay’s report suggests that the passwords were encrypted rather than hashed,” added Brendan Rizzo, Technical Director EMEA for Voltage Security. Sati Bains, COO of Sestus, said, “Yes… it appears from the comment that they did [encrypt rather than hash].”

Jon French, security analyst at AppRiver

Jon French, security analyst at AppRiver

“Encryption and hashing are often confused with each other,” explains Jon French, a security analyst at AppRiver. “But from the sounds of the [eBay’s] press release, it seems they were using some sort of encryption.”

Andrey Dulkin, senior director of cyber innovation at CyberArk, is in no doubt. “Indeed, from the eBay statements we understand that the passwords were encrypted, rather than hashed. The fact that the statements repeatedly use the words ‘encrypted’ and ‘decrypted’ supports this interpretation.”

It is, of course, possible that eBay is simply not differentiating between the two processes, since most of its customers will not understand the difference. “The public understand the word ‘encrypted’ more than hashed – so encrypt is frequently used in place of hashed. But it is believed they were hashed,” suggests Guy Bunker, spokesperson for the Jericho Forum and a cyber security expert at Clearswift.

Ilia Kolochenko, founder and CEO of High-Tech Bridge

Ilia Kolochenko, founder and CEO of High-Tech Bridge

Ilia Kolochenko, founder and CEO of High-Tech Bridge (HTB), doesn’t believe we can tell from eBay’s comments. “The difference isn’t easily understood by users. Even the spokesperson might not be aware. It’s quite possible that the company simply didn’t want to introduce the complexity of describing the technicalities of hashing and salting in a brief announcement.”

What’s the difference, and why does it matter?
The primary operational difference is that encryption can be decrypted; that is the original plaintext can be retrieved from the ciphertext through the use of the encryption key. Hashed outputs cannot be mathematically returned to the original plaintext.

In practice, an entire database of passwords would be encrypted via a single encryption key. But if hashing was used, each individual password would ideally have an unknown value added to it (a ‘salt’) and the results would be separately hashed. “This salt,” explains Voltage’s Rizzo, “is a way to make sure that the hash of a particular password cannot be compared to the known hash of that same password by the attacker through the use of rainbow tables.”

This means that if an encrypted database is stolen, only one key needs to be found to unlock every password in the database.If the passwords are hashed, every single password needs to be cracked individually.

“The advantages to hashing,” Nick Piagentini, senior solutions architect at CloudPassage, told me, “are one, there is no need to manage sensitive encryption keys; two, hashing processes have less overhead to run than encryption processes; and three, there is no need to reconstruct the password data from the hash. Encryption would only be used if there was a need to get the original password back.”

Could the hackers have the encryption key?
This is the 64 million dollar question (and is only relevant if the passwords were encrypted). We don’t know, and we may never know. But it is certainly possible. There are two possibilities: it could have been cracked or it could have been stolen.

Reuters spoke to eBay spokeswoman Amanda Miller:

She said the hackers gained access to 145 million records of which they copied “a large part”. Those records contained passwords as well as email addresses, birth dates, mailing addresses and other personal information, but not financial data such as credit card numbers.
Hackers raid eBay in historic breach, access 145 million records

eBay says the database was compromised some time around late February or early March; but wasn’t discovered until about two weeks ago. What we don’t know is whether the compromise was still in active use by the hackers, what else they did during the two months they were undetected, or whether they left something unwelcome behind. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that having gained access without being discovered the hackers did not have a good look round.

Chris Oakley, principle security consultant at Nettitude

Chris Oakley, principle security consultant at Nettitude

(Incidentally, it is worth pointing out at this point another comment from HTB’s Kolochenko. Basically, eBay’s statement that financial details were safely stored on a separate server is pretty meaningless. “The two servers would have to communicate,” he explained. “The hackers could have installed some malware to listen to the communication between the servers, and sniffed the plaintext traveling between them.”)

So could they have found the encryption key? Opinion is divided. “This is a primary argument for using hashing over encryption for password storage,” comments Nettitude’s Oakley; “an attacker who is able to compromise the database may also be in a position to obtain the encryption key(s).” (Incidentally, if the passwords were hashed rather than encrypted, the hackers could just as likely have found the salt or salt mechanism, rendering the hashed passwords relatively easy to crack via rainbow tables.)

On the other hand, “I would hope they [eBay] didn’t ‘tape the key to the door of the safe’”, comments Trey Ford, global security strategist at Rapid7. “eBay and PayPal have solid security teams, and go through regular third-party assessments. I refuse to believe they would handle encryption key materials that poorly.”

Trey Ford, global security strategist at Rapid7

Trey Ford, global security strategist at Rapid7

And yet they left the users’ email addresses and other personal information unencrypted. If they were using encryption seriously, they would have used a hardware security module (HSM) to house the keys, and would have encrypted everything. “They do not seem to be very confident about their encryption system,” comments Sebastian Munoz, CEO of REALSEC, “when they are suggesting their customers to reset passwords. If efficiently encrypted, using specific certified hardware, there would be no need to reset the passwords, since protection is guaranteed. When you use a Hardware Security Module (HSM) and not a simple and insecure encryption-by-software process, there is no way that hackers can gain access to the encryption keys.”

Munoz further suspects that software based encryption was used since only the passwords were encrypted. Since software encryption impacts on performance, then cost arguments come into play.

Sebastian Munoz, CEO of REALSEC

Sebastian Munoz, CEO of REALSEC

So, given the duration of the breach and the probable lack of an HSM, it is perfectly possible that the hackers also found the encryption key – and if this is the case, they now have access to all of the greater part of 145 million passwords, along with ‘email address, physical address, phone number and date of birth’.

If they did not find the key, would they be able to crack the encryption key? Again, opinion is divided – it all depends upon what encryption algorithm was used. Older encryption algorithms might be susceptible to a ‘known plaintext’ attack (see Wikipedia for details). Getting the necessary plaintext would be no problem. The most popular passwords are remarkable consistent – so a simple analysis with something like DigiNinja’s Pipal on an existing cracked database would provide a fair sampling of plaintext.

Dr Guy Bunker, spokesperson for the Jericho Forum and a cyber security expert at Clearswift

Dr Guy Bunker, spokesperson for the Jericho Forum and a cyber security expert at Clearswift

“However,” notes Bromium’s Ian Pratt, “assuming any kind of modern encryption (e.g. AES-128) was used then a known plaintext attack should not be feasible to recover the key and hence reveal other passwords.”

“Another approach,” suggested Clearswift’s Bunker, “is to ‘inject’ known passwords (either the hash or the encrypted version) into the database. This would create the equivalent of denial of service for the individual but would allow the attacker free reign over the account.”

The problem is we simply do not know what has happened. eBay’s attempts to downplay the incident is simply leading to conjecture.

UPDATE
While writing this report, Rapid7’s Trey Ford noticed adverts for the sale of eBay’s stolen database beginning to appear on Pastebin. “There has now been a posting on pastebin claiming to offer ‘145 312 663 unique records’ relating to the eBay breach,” he told me by email. We don’t know if they’re genuine, “it’s possible that a criminal has just spotted an opportunity to cash in on the attack with some other credentials dump they have.”

An analysis of the sample provided is inconclusive – the records are possibly genuine but not certainly genuine. But Ford had a look at the sample:

The sample that has been shared indicates that cracking the passwords will take considerable time. This is nothing like what we saw when LinkedIn was breached and the stolen credentials were quickly cracked due to only SHA-1 hashing being used for storage. In contrast, this credentials set is using PBKDF2 (Password-Based Key Derivation Function 2) SHA-256 hashes, which means they employ a strong hash function and also intentionally make cracking them more difficult and slow by individually salting and using a high number of hash iterations. The method used can be regarded as the state-of-the-art way to store passwords on web applications. Again though, we don’t know that these are credentials taken from the eBay breach, and no details have come from eBay on how they secure passwords.

This would fit in with eBay’s apparent confidence that the passwords cannot be hacked. However, Reuters spoke to eBay about the sample, and

eBay’s [spokesperson Amanda] Miller said the information was not authentic.
U.S. states probe eBay cyber attack as customers complain

AppRiver’s Jon French also noticed the Pastebin offer. He told me by email,

I’ll be wary of anything like this until I see people saying they see their own names (or if I end up seeing mine). Eventually if the Pastebin offer is legit, someone will post the file for free somewhere or some security company that buys it will verify authenticity.

His colleague, Troy Gill, a senior security analyst at AppRiver also suggested something that serious criminals will be well aware of: “There is always the remote possibility that this is a honey pot set by authorities to lure in would be buyers.”

Summary
eBay is taking the standard route for crisis management: say nothing. This is hugely disrespectful to its customers, who need and have a right to know everything possible. But eBay is also making a mistake in trying to downplay the effect of the stolen data. It says it has “no evidence of the compromise resulting in unauthorized activity for eBay users, and no evidence of any unauthorized access to financial or credit card information.” This is meant to make its customers feel better – the danger is that it might.

What eBay isn’t saying is that the unencrypted personal data also stolen (email address, physical address, phone number and date of birth) is a phisher’s wet dream. Armed with that information criminals will be able to concoct very compelling emails and cold call telephone calls. This is likely to happen on a vast scale and very soon. eBay might feel confidant about its own business, but the data it has lost puts millions of individuals and other companies in danger.

“When companies like eBay keep silent about the details,” commented High-Tech Bridge’s Kolochenko, “I would tend to expect the worst.” It is perhaps worth remembering the Adobe incident, which started off with a breach of a couple of million and slowly escalated into one of the worst breaches in history.

Categories: All, Security Issues

Who’s doing what to protect our data?

December 9, 2013 Leave a comment

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a fascinating graphic on which companies are doing what things to protect their customers’ – our – data in the post Prism/Snowden era.

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eff

What different companies are doing to protect their customers’ data – source: EFF

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What really leaps out is that the companies is that provide consumer cloud services are on our side (Dropbox, Facebook, Google and Twitter); telecommunication companies are on their side (AT&T, Comcast, Verizon); and the main OS providers (Microsoft and Apple) aren’t really sure which side their bread is buttered.

Categories: All, Politics, Security Issues

Password theory is good – password practice is poor

November 25, 2013 Leave a comment

There’s nothing wrong with passwords. At least there’s nothing wrong with the theory of passwords.

You have a locked room. The only way into the room is through a single door. The only way through the door is with a single key. You have the only key. What’s wrong with that?

Throughout this article we’ll talk about locked rooms and keys. The locked rooms are your accounts, mostly on the internet; and they contain your valuable personal data. The keys are your passwords to those accounts. You should have a separate key for each locked room. If you have a single key for multiple rooms and you lose that key or it is stolen, the finder can get into all of your rooms.

So, just like any key to any room, we have a responsibility to keep it or them safe if we want to keep our property safe. We need to make sure they cannot be guessed; that we do not leave them lying around for others to find; that we make it as difficult as possible for hackers to steal them directly from our desktop computers (anti-virus, firewalls and above all else, common sense); and that we do not make copies and use the same key for multiple rooms (we need a different key for every different room).

The problem is that we hear about new password thefts almost every day. Some of them happen because of earlier password thefts. As soon as your password is stolen, you are no longer the only person who can get into your locked room. Any person who has your password, the key to your locked room, can steal all of your personal, private and valuable information. Here’s a selection of thefts, basically just what I can remember – there’s many, many more – from this year alone:

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Adobe 150,000,000 http://kevtownsend.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/adobe-you-really-cocked-up-on-this-one/
Apple 275,000 http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/jul/22/apple-developer-site-hacked
Cupid Media 42,000,000 http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/35767/42-million-passwords-compromised-as-hackers-aim-at-cupid-online-dating/
Drupal 1,000,000 http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/32697/drupal-hit-by-massive-data-breach
Evernote 50,000,000 http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/31023/evernote-hacked-50-million-passwords-reset
Living Social 50,000,000 http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/32087/50-million-livingsocial-passwords-stolen
LoyaltyBuild 1,500,000 http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/35604/irish-data-center-breach-hits-15-million-european-consumers
MacRumors 860,000 http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/35592/macrumors-breached-860k-passwords-potentially-compromised/
Morningstar 182,000 http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/33348/morningstar-provides-some-information-about-breach
Nintendo 24,000 http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/33342/thousands-of-club-nintendo-accounts-compromised
Racing Post unknown http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/35814/racing-post-breached-users-passwords-stolen/
Scribd c300,000 http://www.nbcnews.com/technology/scribd-hack-exposes-thousands-users-1B9239618
Twitter 250,000 http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-02/02/twitter-hacked
UbiSoft up to 58,000,000 http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/33248/ubisoft-maker-of-assassins-creed-and-ghost-recon-breached
Ubuntu 1,800,000 http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/33556/ubuntu-forum-hacked-18-million-accounts-compromised
vBulletin 900,000 http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/35718/is-there-a-vbulletin-zeroday-out-there/
Yahoo 450,000 http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/26976/yahoo-confirms-what-everyone-already-knew-about-password-breach

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Criminals get passwords either by knowing them (because they are given them, or they are insufficiently hidden), or they guess them. In the first case they use social-engineering psychology to persuade the user to hand them over (more information on social engineering here, and spear-phishing here), or they find them unhidden by the user. In the latter case they guess the most common passwords, or use automated dictionaries to try every possibility until the right password (key) for a known account (locked room) is found.

Most websites include a limit on the number of failed access attempts allowed within a predetermined period. This means multiple attempts to guess the right password while online are almost certain to fail. That is why criminals steal password databases from websites – so that they can try millions of automated guesses offline without being interrupted. The purpose is still to find the key to gain entry to your locked room, and to steal everything of value within it.

But there’s an easy solution: use complex passwords that cannot be manually guessed, and electronically hide them so that automated guessing still won’t work.

There are two methods for ‘electronically hiding’ text: encryption and hashing. Encryption involves converting text into an apparently meaningless jumble of characters in a manner that can only be unjumbled if you have the secret decryption key – which can be the same as (symmetric encryption) or different to (asymmetric encryption) – the encrypting key for your password. Encryption, by definition, comes with the ability to decrypt – the ability to return the jumble back to the original text. Hashing is different. Hashing is one-way only. Hashing converts the original text into a meaningless jumble that cannot be de-hashed back to the original.

Hashing is the right solution for websites to hide their users’ passwords. It means that even the website doesn’t need to know the password, only the hash, which they cannot return to the original password key. With this method passwords need never and should never be stored by websites.

When you create a new account you are asked to provide a password. That password is hashed, paired with your user ID (often, but not necessarily, your email address), associated with your account, and stored. Whenever you want to access your account, you again enter your password. It is hashed again. If your user ID and the new hash result match with something stored, you are allowed access to the associated account.

Hint: if you forget your password, distrust a website that is able to send you your old password by email – it shouldn’t have your password. The ‘correct’ procedure is to guide you to a place where you can create a new password.

So, the effective use of passwords is a partnership. User’s need to create good passwords and keep them safe, while internet companies need to store them safely and securely. It is my contention that done properly, this will be enough.

Alternatives to the simple password
Before we go too far on the strengths and weaknesses of passwords, we should mention the alternatives.

Passwords are designed to provide user authentication – to prove that Joe Smith really is not just any Joe Smith, but the right Joe Smith. In security terms, authentication is often described by the number of factors it uses – with the implication and a degree of validity that the more factors used, the more secure the authentication. (Personally, I do not believe that is necessarily true.) ‘Factors’ in this sense are things you know (like a password), things you have (like a token), things you are (like a biometric), and so on. The two most commonly used additional factors today are soft tokens and biometrics.

Soft token 2FA
An example of the most commonly used two-factor user authentication is the separate token sent out-of-band to the user’s mobile phone. This is a one-off code. Now you could say that ‘the thing that is owned’ is the separate code, or the phone that it is received on. Either way, the user now requires something he knows (password) and something he owns (phone/token).

I have two problems with this. Firstly, whenever you introduce complexity into security, you also introduce weakness – the phone and the communication sending it can both be attacked separately. The second issue is that this complexity makes it harder to use – and users do not want any more difficulty. If 2FA is an option, most users opt to ignore it. That in itself is not an issue, because we’re back where we started. But the fact that there **is** a 2FA option can mean that users take less care, whether they opt for 2FA or not, simply because it is clear that the vendor is taking more care. There is a danger that 2FA can cause a false sense of security.

Biometric authentication
Biometrics is getting a lot of publicity. Governments use facial biometrics for surveillance and passports; law enforcement uses fingerprints for criminal recognition; and Apple uses finger scans for opening the new iPhone.

I have three concerns. Firstly, nearly all biometrics can be forged. It took researchers just days to break through Apple’s iPhone finger scan. Secondly, what do you do if your biometric is compromised? If your password is compromised, you create or request a new password. What do you do if your iris, or your voice, or your thumbprint is compromised? And thirdly, it’s that old false sense of security – people using biometrics tend to think they are more secure than they actually are.

My contention, which I shall try to demonstrate below, is that passwords – used correctly – are adequate on their own. All we have to do is use them correctly.

Creating secure passwords and keeping them safe
Criminals get into locked rooms by guessing the password key.

When Gawker was breached in 2010, researchers found that the ten most popular passwords were

  1. 123456
  2. password
  3. 12345678
  4. lifehack [LifeHacker is a Gawker publication]
  5. qwerty
  6. abc123
  7. 111111
  8. monkey
  9. consumer
  10. 12345

When LinkedIn was breached in 2012, researchers discovered that the ten most popular passwords were:

  1. password
  2. 123456
  3. 12345678
  4. 1234
  5. qwerty
  6. 12345
  7. dragon
  8. pussy
  9. baseball
  10. football

How long do you think it would take to guess passwords like these?

Of course, if the passwords are all held in a single database without any form of electronic jumbling, then a password thief doesn’t need to guess anything because he’s got them written down in front of him. So the websites store the passwords ‘hashed’.

Now the criminals have to start guessing. To help this process, they use computers and specialized dictionaries called rainbow tables. Rainbow tables are effectively long lists of precomputed hash outputs together with the original input text that was used.

Stolen password hashes are then simply compared to the rainbow tables. If the hash output is found, then the password is known – that is, the password has been cracked.

So when you consider a new password, you should also consider how they are cracked with rainbow tables. Any word that appears in a dictionary will be in the tables. Any number up to at least 999,999,999 will be in the tables. All conceivable combinations of letters up to a certain length, and all conceivable combination of letters and numbers up to a certain length, will appear in the tables. In short, if you use a password made up of any combination of letters and numbers up to, say, seven characters, and that password is stolen, you should consider it already cracked and available to the criminals.

This will include some of the commonly recommended methods for coming up with passwords – such as initial letters from quotations. “into the valley of death rode the six hundred” could provide ‘itvodrt600′. That looks like a strong password – but you should assume that it’s in a rainbow table somewhere.

The way to avoid rainbow tables is to use a very long password that mixes uppercase, lowercase, numbers, special characters and punctuation marks. The problem then becomes one of usability – passwords that are difficult to guess are even more difficult to remember.

The best way to produce, store locally and safely, and use strong passwords is to use a reputable and recommended password manager. I’m not going to recommend any myself – you must research that on your own. But the one I use generates passwords for me such as

%wc;I’,;Gp*CfQr9FUFpZYm|

I consider that to be reasonably secure against most tables.

The responsibility of the website
The fact remains that if the vendor doesn’t keep passwords hashed, then it really doesn’t matter how complex I make them.

So if it is incumbent on me to generate strong passwords, then it is equally incumbent on the website to store them securely. That means hashing them.

Actually, it means more than that. It means using a strong hashing algorithm (not all are equally good); it means using a slow algorithm (some were designed for speed when computers were slow, with the unintended consequence of making cracking faster and therefore easier); and they should be salted. Salting is the addition of additional random characters to the user’s password. Basically, salt makes the password even harder to crack – it turns a medium strength password into a strong password.

This is standard best-practice. Unfortunately, too many websites do not conform to best practice. In the last few weeks we have heard:

  • Adobe did not hash its passwords; it encrypted them (better than nothing, but not as good as hashing) It also stored users’ password hints next to the encrypted passwords in plain text – making it, in some cases, obvious what the password was.
  • LoyaltyBuild stored users’ credit card numbers unencrypted and with the cards’ CVV numbers.
  • Cupid Media stored its users’ passwords in plaintext.

What is the point of coming up with a long, complicated, unguessable password if the website just hands it to the criminals on a plate?

Conclusions and recommendations
For password access to locked rooms to work, they need to be strong (from the user) and hashed and salted by the website. Clearly that frequently doesn’t happen; and that’s why we have rampant identity theft.

Since it doesn’t happen voluntarily, we need a new code of practice backed by regulation if necessary. Much of it will fall on the website; but that’s a small price to pay for a secure and trusted internet.

Firstly, websites should require a minimum strength password from their users – so strong, in fact, that it becomes easier to use a password manager than to try to make them up.

Secondly, users must learn not to reuse the same password on multiple sites. Security audits must confirm this as part of staff awareness training, and schoolchildren need it to be taught in schools.

Thirdly, websites must be required, by law if necessary, to make it clear how they protect their users. Inadequate password security could then be shunned by users and ridiculed by professionals.

With these three basic developments, password-protected access will do the job it was designed to do: locked rooms will stay locked, personal and private.

Categories: All, Security Issues

There are no absolutes in security

August 19, 2013 2 comments

I’ve had a comment on my latest Dropbox post (Is it safe to carry on using Dropbox (post Prism)? Yes and No: Part III) that I have rejected. This is a very heavily moderated blog, but I thought I’d explain why I rejected this one.

The comment started by saying, “As Dropbox stands today on its own, yes, completely agree that there is the *possibility* of your data being “looked in on” by people without your knowledge or permission.” It then added, “However, there are 3rd party services out there like xyznnn (www.xyznnn.com) that are completely tapproof, i.e. YOU hold the keys, not Dropbox or the 3rd party vendor. Meaning that your data cannot be accessed without you knowing about it. Read more in this blog post: xyznnn.”

It was, naturally, submitted by a member of the marketing department of the xyznnn company; so it is absolutely an attempt at advertising to the readers of this blog. That, in itself, is not enough for me to reject it. If such a comment adds value to the subject or will genuinely help the reader, I will still generally allow it.

But this one is flatly wrong. First of all, never trust anyone who says or implies that any security is unbreakable. In fact, if anyone says that, you can begin to distrust their understanding of security. So, rather than helping the readers, I consider claims such as “completely tapproof” and “your data cannot be accessed” to be misleading and potentially dangerous.

I will not knowingly help promote products that make what I consider to be statements verging on hyperbole and are fundamentally inaccurate — there are simply no absolutes in security. And that is why this particular comment was rejected.

Categories: All, Security Issues

Chinese [irony alert] whispers…

July 10, 2013 Leave a comment

I got this note from a PR company working for a quite major security company. It said, “In response to the MOD being the victim of a cyber espionage attack that has led to the theft of key data…” and pointed to an article on V3.

That article does indeed say,

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) was the victim of a cyber espionage attack that led to the theft of key data, in the latest evidence of the sustained cyber threats facing the UK.

The comment from the PR company talked about the importance of protecting encryption keys. “Failure to retain custody of your encryption keys is a huge issue that essentially negates the benefits of encryption,” said the spokesman.

This is, of course, perfectly true and valid. But we should go back to the source of V3’s article, the latest 2013 annual report from the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee. Not once does it use the phrase ‘key data’. In fact, not once does it mention encryption.

In fact it doesn’t even say that the MoD was the victim. What it says is,

Government departments are also targeted via attacks on industry suppliers which may hold government information on their own systems. We have been told that cyber espionage “[has] resulted in MOD data being stolen,***. This has both security and financial consequences for the UK.

So this should be a story about supply chain security, not about encryption keys.

It is from such little misunderstandings that global cyberwar evolves…

Categories: All, Security Issues
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