Category Archives: passwords

Sins of Omission

It’s not really related to malware, but this is an interesting article that brings up a few issues that should be highligthed.

Firstly, the cheque images in question are used as a security feature, you can view them online to see when and where they were cashed, and they are attached to a specific transaction. Those who don’t have a US bank account might not be familiar with such a system – however, the fact that the cheque now exists online should be a red-flag for security, and you would expect it to be protected as part of the bank account (your cheques, after all, have your signature on them, along with your bank details and a sample of your handwriting). The key to the success of this breach was that the images were all stored in a single online database. This in itself is a huge vulnerability.

Secondly, just because something is not a regulatory requirement, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done as a matter of course. Holding such a database, and knowing that it contains data that would be very useful in fraud, then it makes sense to use encryption to protect it - so in this case fact that they were not encrypted simply makes it worse. It’s like saying that we were only required to put locks on the doors, but the regulations didn’t state we needed to close the windows.

Many European banks are moving away from paper driven cheques, and that would of course reduce or eliminate this specific attack, but what doesn’t seem to be happening is any assumption by the banks of attack. For instance, my bank has implemented some rudimentary anti-phishing protections, but it still uses a very weak password based account entry, which any key-logger could get around (unless of course I’m using a secure browser like K7SecureWeb or SafeCentral), and that combined with  a screen-scraper could easily compromise the anti-phishing measures.

Probably, as things get more serious (in terms of fraud) for the banks, there will be much more concentration on securing things. For now, the sad fact is that the consumers are not driving this, because they don’t care – the losses are to the banks, because of consumer protection (at least in the EU and USA). The reason my bank (along with most other British and US banks) have such poor security is that at the moment, the customers aren’t demanding higher security. That, coupled with silly things like only implementing the letter, rather than the spirit of regulation, is not going to bode well for the online banking in the near future.

Meanwhile, the Anti-malware industry gets a harder and harder rap for not being able to clean up all the mess, while what really needs to happen is for everyone to take a bit more responsibility for their actions, and understand that there are real threats out there, that cannot just be addressed by anti-malware alone, nor indeed any purely technology based solution.

Andrew Lee CISSP
AVIEN CEO / CTO K7 Computing

Changing Passwords: Should You Pass On It?

I’m seeing a lot of traffic about a story in the Boston Globe and taken up elsewhere suggesting that changing passwords is “a waste of time”. Well, actually, the study by Cormac Herley doesn’t exactly say that, and I suggest that you read the actual study to see what it does say. It’s actually well worth reading and makes some excellent points, though it’s not a particularly new paper, and some of the points it makes are much older. 

Should you stop changing passwords? Well, you probably don’t have much choice, in general. You should certainly use strong passwords, where possible (some systems actively work against you in that respect, by only accepting limited password options). Randy Abrams and I wrote a paper for ESET last year that discussed some password strategies, and one of the points made there was: 

 “It’s sometimes useful to consider whether frequent changes are really necessary or desirable. After all, if you’re encouraging the use of good password selection and resistance to social engineering attacks, and making it difficult for an attacker to use unlimited login attempts, a good password should remain a safe password for quite a while.”

I don’t think that the “change passwords every thirty days” mantra has been as universally enthused over by security specialists as the Globe suggests. System administrators (not always the same thing as security specialists) do often enforce such measures, of course. But while I was working on some notes for a journalist today on social engineering, I came across this quote in a paper I presented at EICAR in 1998. (I’ll have to put that paper up somewhere: it’s actually not bad, and not particularly outdated.)

“Documented research into social engineering hasn’t kept pace with dialogue between practitioners, let alone with real-world threats. Of course password stealing is important, but it’s [also] important not to think of social engineering as being concerned exclusively with ways of saying “Open, sesame…..”

Even within this very limited area, there is scope for mistrusting received wisdom. No-one doubts the importance of secure passwords in most computing environments, though the efficacy of passwording as a long-term solution to user authentication could be the basis of a lively discussion. Still, that’s what most systems rely on. It’s accepted that frequent password changes make it harder for an intruder to guess a given user’s password. However, they also make it harder for the user to remember his/her password. He/she is thus encouraged to attempt subversive strategies such as:

  • changing a password by some easily guessed technique such as adding 1, 2, 3 etc. to the password they had before the latest enforced change.
  • changing a password several times in succession so that the password history expires, allowing them to revert to a previously held password.
  • using the same password on several systems and changing them all at the same time so as to cut down on the number of passwords they need to remember.
  • aides-memoire such as PostIts, notes in the purse, wallet or personal organizer, biro on the back of the wrist…..

How much data is there which ‘validates’ ‘known truths’ like “frequent password changes make it harder for an intruder to guess a given user’s password”? Do we need to examine such ‘received wisdom more closely?”

Nor do I claim that those thoughts were particularly original: luminaries like Gene Spafford and Bruce Schneier have made similar observations. That doesn’t mean you should accept uncritically what they, or I, say. But it’s always worth wondering if received wisdom is really wise.

And as Neil Rubenking points out, an attacker isn’t going to waste time on trying to crack your password with brute force if he can trick you into telling it to him, or into running a keylogger. Which takes me right back to that social engineering paper… [Update: now available at]

AVIEN Chief Operations Officer
ESET Research Fellow & Director of Malware Intelligence
Mac Virus
Small Blue-Green World

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