There is a lot of talk about the recent discovery of what appears to be about 1.2 billion username and passwords stolen. I haven’t seen the list, so I can’t confirm that, but let’s assume it is accurate. Is this something we should be panicking about?
The first question is how many unique people does this actually effect? The chances that it effects 1.2 billion people seems pretty. I haven’t seen any statistics generated but we have to assume that those people that are connected to the internet have more than one user account. The breach says the credentials were pilfered from more than 450,000 sites. Of course that information is not being released, and we don’t need it to protect ourselves.
Practice Good Password Practices
With all the recent breach coverage we can’t help but to continue preaching good password practices. You may ask if it really matters with all the breaches that occur, or what control you really have. It is not like these passwords are stolen from you, the application that stores them is usually the culprit.
As those that create and rely on passwords, we do want to help take care of them as best we can. I can’t control what the developer is doing to protect the password on their end, so I have to assume the worst and do the best I can on my end. At some point, I think we will start to see people actually stop using applications that are not proactively protecting our data, but to do that we need applications that are transparent and show us they are doing things right to gain our business.
Choosing Strong Passwords
We should start off by choosing strong passwords. Unfortunately, a lot of critical applications still don’t support strong enough passwords, but if you can, try to have at least 15 characters in the password. When it comes to password strength it is the length that has the greatest effect. Remember, it is rare that someone is trying to guess Your password, rather they are running software tools to crack large swaths of passwords. I prefer to use pass phrases or sentences to create my password. This makes it easier to remember and more difficult to crack.
Changing Passwords Regularly
Changing your password to critical systems regularly can help avoid your password from being stolen by malicious users. Many corporate systems require password changes every 45-90 days for end users. You should follow that guideline too for personal applications, especially the ones that focus on financial artifacts (such as your bank accounts). Lets hope that a company that has been breached and lost passwords isn’t losing them day after day. We hope it was a one or two time thing. By changing our passwords regularly it increases the chance that the breached data is no longer valid by the time it gets used.
Don’t Reuse Passwords
It is recommended to not use the same password on multiple sites. I understand that this is a pain point because it is difficult to remember that many passwords. Try a password manager, a piece of software to store all your passwords securely, to help solve that problem. The issue with re-using passwords is that many sites allow you to use the same username, or just your email address as the user name. Once your data has been stolen from one application, an attacker may try that password on another site where you use those same credentials. This also includes not using similar passwords. Using passwords like Summer2014 and Fall2014 are not a good idea because if these are identified, it is simple to figure out the pattern and guess the next password in line. This is critical if you do change your password regularly, and an older password got breached.
2 Factor Authentication
If a site offers 2-factor authentication, enable it. Two factor authentication means that the site will prompt you for your username and password and then a secondary piece of information. For example, my bank will send me a token via email that I have to enter. This token is different every time I log in. Many sites are starting to support tools like Google Authenticator, which is an app that runs on your mobile device and provides that 2nd piece of authentication. If you are using sites that do not support 2 factor authentication, write to them and request it. Remember, they are storing your data, you want it protected.
Validate the Hype
When news like this breaks, we often have a tendency to really overreact thinking that it is the end of the world. Credentials got stolen, we are not disputing that, but lets step back and think about what that means. Keep in mind that in this announcement, applications or companies were not named. At this point, it is possible the credentials are for meaningless sites that are not that big of a deal. Due to the nature of the accounts being used to send spam I am guessing many are probably email accounts, but that is just a guess. What has happened in the past can’t really be changed. We change our passwords, we monitor our accounts (like we should be anyway) and we continue reaping the benefits that these applications provide us.
Stay safe, and keep your eyes open.