Monday, February 17, 2020

Introduction to Pa$$w0rds

When people hear the word "password", the first thing that comes to their mind is the pesky, hard to memorize code they are required to enter when accessing their online accounts. The truth is that passwords have been around for centuries, long before the first computers were introduced in the 1930s and 1940s (remember "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers"? Well, think again! But I digress).

Passwords were used in the Roman Military by sentries as a method of access control to restricted areas, challenge-response phrases were used by the American 101st Airborne Division in World War II by presenting a challenge "flash" with the desired response being "thunder".
In 1961 Fernando Corbató, an MIT Professor, first implemented the password in a computer system called Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) which was an operating system used by researchers. In the 1970s Robert Morris first implemented the passwords hashing mechanism as part of the UNIX operating system.

In the mid-1990s when the internet started taking off, passwords became an integral part of our day-to-day, online life. Despite global efforts that include the largest tech giants (e.g., FIDO Alliance), passwords are still the most common method of online access control.

The good

Although extremely outdated, passwords have one significant advantage – they can be used almost from any device, assuming a physical or virtual keyboard is present. Technologies such as one-time passwords, tokens or fingerprint provide a much better user experience, but they still require the device to be present for the verification to take place.
Another important upside of passwords is preserving user privacy, since passwords are not considered Personal Identifiable Information (PII) they can be stored in the cloud or on-prem, assuming proper security measures are taken such as hashing and salting.

Assuming we are the type of people that "look at the full half of glass", password sharing can be considered a good thing in some cases, for example if you need to grant your spouse access to your email or bank account. Although in general, it is best to grant access in such cases beforehand using proper authorization mechanisms, that grant multiple users access to a single account or resource.

The bad

Where should we begin? Generally speaking, passwords are a lose-lose situation both for the enterprise as well as for the end users. This includes but is not limited to poor security, poor user experience and a high operating and maintenance cost.
Security wise, passwords suffer from a multitude of attack vectors that in most cases, can be mitigated by sticking to security best practices and proper employee training.

Data leakage: There are many different reasons why hackers gain access to restricted data - from unpatched vulnerabilities in the OS, to misconfigured cloud instances. Eventually someone bad will get to our data so we need to make sure we follow security best practices. With passwords this usually means hashing, since passwords should never be stored as plain text. But hashing alone is not enough, as it opens up the hashed passwords to a "rainbow-table" attack, that basically uses a precomputed table for reversing hashes. Therefore, hashing should always be done using a "salting" mechanism, by adding a random piece of text to the password and only then hashing it. By doing so, it will significantly increase the effort required to crafting an attack at scale, when exploiting the hashed passwords that were harvested.

Phishing websites: An extremely common attack vector, typically done by sending a link and redirecting the user to a "fake" website, that in most cases looks identical to the naked eye. The unsuspecting user inputs their credentials and poof… Their username and password are suddenly for sale on the dark web, for a dime-a-dozen. There a many elaborate and highly sophisticated tools to handle these attacks, from automatically taking down these websites to tools based on computer-vision that distinguish between a real and fake website. But in many cases, nothing beats the good old employee training and guidance, which are an integral part of the anti-phishing arsenal. Now you might say something like, "But hey, I got 2FA, I'm safe!". Well guess again, especially if you're using SMS OTPs. More on that on the next chapters.
Weak and re-used passwords: Some websites go to such great lengths with the password complexity requirements, that it can take several minutes just to come up with a password, let alone memorize it without writing it down. Eventually we are humans and we were not programmed to memorize random letters, which is why most users use easy to memorize passwords and also re-use them across accounts. Now, I feel pretty comfortable with Google safeguarding my password using proper salting etc., (should I?) But what about that questionable eCommerce website I signed up to, using the same password? It just so happens that they did not properly configure their cloud's security settings and forgot to "spice" up their passwords. You get the picture. In other cases, people use easy to remember passwords, the three most common passwords are: “qwerty”, “password” and “111111”. This opens them up to dictionary attacks, which is essentially a database containing a predetermined set of commonly used passwords.

So, what can you? Don't re-use passwords, require your users to generate complex passwords and don't forget to turn on 2FA!

Setting aside security, passwords also fall short in user-experience and can lead to lost business and transaction abandonment by frustrated users that are required to manage numerous accounts. Eventually these users will have to go through the tedious "account recovery" process that is also extremely insecure. As the cherry on top, add the high operating costs of managing and resetting passwords -  a Forrester research estimates that the average cost of a single password reset done by help desk is about $70, while Gartner estimates that 20% to 50% of all help desk calls are for password resets.

The ugly

A recent phishing campaign targeting Apple, redirected users to a phony website that mimics Apple's account management platform, in an attempt to harvest credentials. Another recent phishing campaign is targeting the UK, in an attempt to execute mass credential harvesting.

In 2012, reports stated that 6.46 million hashed passwords of LinkedIn accounts leaked online, and you guessed it, they were "unsalted".

Another notable data leakage was 7 million compromised Minecraft accounts, that were also "unsalted". Before you start thinking, "What's the worst thing that can happen with hijacked Minecraft accounts?", consider the fact that some of these passwords may have been re-used in additional accounts.

To sum it up, according to the Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, 81% of breaches are related to weak or compromised passwords.

How can Verifyoo help you?

Verifyoo's DrawID solution "eats the cake and keeps it whole" by keeping the main benefit of passwords without the weaknesses – enabling users to safely verify themselves from any device, without memorizing passwords. Aside from providing organizations and consumers a much more secure method of verification, Verifyoo also reduces the friction caused by forgotten passwords. Password friction not only leads to massive transaction abandonment by frustrated users, but also incurs high operating costs of resetting these passwords using frequent help-desk calls, knowledge-based questions and other means that have proven to be inefficient and insecure.

Read the next article in the series here:

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