1.5 million Facebook accounts hacked?

Suppose you found out that a Russian hacker was selling access to hacked Facebook accounts for a mere $0.025 – $0.045 each, and that the hacker had 1,500,000 accounts to hawk. Should you be worried?

Risk vs. Effort

As it happens, this threat seemed plausible at one point last month. Now it appears that the danger was probably exaggerated (although that’s what the Facebook folks would say, isn’t it?):

Facebook’s assessment of Killros is that he is a low-level player and that he had nowhere near the 1.5 million accounts he advertised. Most likely, he had a few hundred accounts most of which he likely created himself. Through some interesting and impressive forensic work, the Facebook security team identified the real Facebook accounts owned by Kirllos, reset the passwords, and notified the account owners.

But for fun, let’s take the hacker’s advertising at face value. How big of a risk is it to you, the average Facebook account holder? Well, to start with, there are over 400 million Facebook accounts, so the chances that yours is among the 1.5 million currently on sale are less than half of one percent.

I’ve written before that the prices criminals are willing to pay to get your account details are good magnitude of risk indicators. In this case, if the value of each Facebook account is less than 5 cents, criminal buyers must not be expecting much more than the value of their time as a return on hacking into accounts.

You should be much more concerned about your bank account login details getting stolen, as that information apparently sells for about 1% of the account balance. In other words, buyers of this information expect a reasonable payoff in exchange for their investment and the risks they are taking.

So my take on the Facebook news is that it was initially alarming, but probably nothing to get worked up about. Of course, there’s no harm in updating and/or upgrading your Facebook password if you haven’t done so in a while.

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How I’d hack your weak passwords

Barbarians at the gate demanding easy password

Read this list of commonly used passwords and see if you get a little nervous. Double twangs of deserved nervousness if you use the same password for every account.

The post has some solid advice about making and managing great passwords, too.

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Natwest beats the keyloggers

Natwest bank sign in page

NatWest, a UK-based bank, has a unique login page that makes it safe to sign into your online bank account even on untrusted computers. The login page makes it impossible to employ the Revised Vesik Method that is ordinarily the best way to beat keyloggers, but it more than compensates with its clever login requirements.

When logging in, the first set of fields ask for just three of the four or more digits that make up your account PIN, and the next set of fields asks for just three of the eight or more characters from your password (you are using eight characters or more for your passwords, right?). The specific characters you need to enter change each time you successfully login.

So suppose a keylogger captures every stroke you enter – are you safe? Yes, since the six digits that a keylogger could scrape are likely to prove useless when the next login page is generated. The new page will ask for different characters, and it won’t regenerate new requirements until those characters are successfully entered. That’s important, because otherwise it might be possible to refresh the page until the desired six digits are requested again.

As safe as other techniques?

You might wonder if the trick of asking for just six digits means that the login procedure is less safe than one that asks for eight. I believe it is, but not in any sense that matters as long as there is a limit to the number of incorrect login attempts that can be made. Like most banks, Natwest hinders password-guessers by temporarily blocking access to online banking after a certain number of failed login attempts

So, how much less safe is NatWest’s request for six digits instead of eight? Well, guessing an eight digit password composed of numbers and varied case letters would see success about 1 in 200 trillion times; guessing a single number from a four digit PIN and then guessing the correct three digits from the same password as before would see success about 1 in 2.4 million times. There is a difference, but it doesn’t really matter if the temporary lockout feature is working properly. In my judgment, the anti-fishing benefits make NatWest’s login procedure safer than login pages that ask for complete passwords.

The one downside is that logging in is inconvenient, since you have to mentally count to the right digit in your password before entering it. Still, Natwest’s login requirements ought to be considered industry best-practices. I hope to see more banks adopt the technique.

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Don’t settle for weak passwords

If you want a simple way to create, store, and use strong passwords, get Password Safe. You need only remember one password — the master password that grants access to your password database. Making a suitable password is easy, as I’ve written about before.

Slate has an article this month that gives similar advice for making passwords. It’s worth reading for the examples, and I like the suggestion for creating a password that can be altered slightly every few months so frequent password-changers don’t have to memorize a completely new one.

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The weakest link

As always, a company’s security is only as good as its weakest link. Often, social engineering is the easiest way in for someone who wants to steal passwords or account information. Password reset procedures are pretty bad, too (“What is the name of the street where you grew up”? Give me a break).

Here is a sad combination example. I doubt the companies discussed are outliers in terms of their security standards.

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