Archive for the ‘Password need-to-knows’ Category

Are your passwords strong enough to resist a brute force attack?

Passwords are just about dead. Many systems now offer “two factor identification.” You give them your cell phone number and you have to use both a password and a code number sent to  the phone for your log in.  But passwords continue. They are easy for administrators. They are part of the common culture.

Steve Gibson has the engineer’s “knack.” (See the Dilbert video here.) His company, Gibson Research Corporation (here), sells a wide range of computer security products and services. He also offers many for free. Among the freebies is Haystack: How Big is Your Haystack – and how well is your needle hidden? (here)  This utility provides a metric for measuring password security.

It is pretty easy to do yourself, if you like arithmetic. 26 upper case letters, 26 lower case, 10 digits, 33 characters (with the space) for 95 printable ASCII characters in the common set.  So, if you have an 8-character password that is 95 to the 8th power possible combinations: 6.634 times 10 to the 15th power or over 6-and-a-half quadrillion. If you could try a million guesses a second, it would take 6.5 billion seconds or just over 200 years. (60 seconds/minute * 60 minutes/hour * 24 hours/day * 365.25 days / year* 200 years =6.3 billion .)

Gibson Research makes all of that automatic. Just key in your password, and it tells you how long it would take to crack.

Cracking passwords is a “routine activity” for a hacker. They have tools.  At one meet-up for hackers, the speaker told us, “If you have to use brute force, you are not thinking.”  They do not type in a million guesses per second, of course. They have programs to do that. Also, most websites just do not allow that kind of traffic: you cannot do a million guesses per second. What the hackers do is break in to a site, such as Target, Home Depot, LinkedIn, or eHarmony, download all of the log files, and then, on their own time, let their software attack the data offline.

Also, hackers do not use the same computers that you and I do. They start with gaming machines because the processors in those are built for high-speed calculation. They then gang those multiple processors to create massively parallel computers.  The calculators from GRC show the likely outcome for brute force by both a “regular” computer and a “massive cracking array.”

If someone got hired today at a typical midrange American corporation, their password might just be January2016. If, like most of us, they think that are really clever, it ends with an exclamation point: January2016! Hackers have databases of these. They start with standard dictionaries, and add to them all of the known passwords that they discover.

One common recommendation is to take the first letters of a phrase known only to you and personal only to you. My mother had naturally red hair for most of her life. She was born in 1929 and passed in 2012. So, “My mother’s red hair came from a bottle” becomes mmrhcfab19292012. According to Gibson Research, brute force guessing with a massive cracking array would take over 26 centuries.

Gioachino Rossini premiered his opera, William Tell, in 1829. “William & Tell = 1829” would take a massive parallel cracking machine about 1 million trillion centuries to guess. On the other hand, a “false phrase” such as Five + One = 27 could not be done in under 1.5 million centuries.

TMAR Four 3c3c

Texas State Guard Maritime Regiment non-commissioned officers at leadership training.  Only the one on your far right is a real Marine.

Remember, however, that a dictionary attack will crack any common phrase.  With over 1.7 million veterans of the United States Marine Corp, someone—probably several hundred someones—has “Semper Fi” for a password. Don’t let that be you. A brute force attack would need only 39 minutes, but that is not necessary: a cracker’s dictionary should have “Semper Fi” in it already.

(Above, I said that cracking passwords is a “routine activity” for a hacker. “Routine activities” is the name of theory of crime.  Attributed to sociologists Marcus Felson and Lawrence E. Cohen, routine activities theory says that crime is what criminals do, independent of such “social causes” as poverty. (See Routine Activity Theory on Wikipedia here.) That certainly applies to password crackers. Like other white collar criminals, they are socially-advantaged sociopaths.  They are planfully competent, calculating their efforts against a selfish return.)

As I do almost every day, I was looking through security news this morning. An article by Graham Cluley about a security issue—CERT CVE-2015-2865 —with the SwiftKey keyboard on Samsung Galaxy phones caught my eye. The security issue with the keyboard is because it updates itself automatically over an unencrypted HTTP connection instead of over HTTPS and does not verify the downloaded update. It cannot be uninstalled or disabled or replaced with a safer version from the Google Play store. Even if it is not the default keyboard on your phone, successful exploitation of this issue could allow a remote attacker to access your camera, microphone, GPS, install malware, or spy on you.

Samsung provided a firmware patch early this year to affected cell phone service providers.

What to do: Check with your cell phone service provider to see if the patch has been applied to your phone. I talked to Verizon this morning, and my phone does have the patch. Do not attach your phone an insecure Wi-Fi connection until you are sure you have the patch—which is not a good idea anyway.


An interesting article in Atlantic Monthly discusses purging data in online government and corporate (think insurance or Google) databases when it is two years old, since they cannot keep these online databases secure. I can see their point, but some of that information may actually be useful or even needed after two years. For instance, I would prefer that background checks were kept for longer than two years, although I would certainly like the information they contain to be secured.

Maybe archiving is a better idea instead of purging. It is interesting option, and it certainly deserves more thought.


Lastly, LastPass: I highly recommend password managers. I tried LastPass and it was not for me. I do not like the idea of storing my sensitive information in the cloud (for “cloud” think “someone else’s computer”), but it is very convenient. Most of the time, you achieve convenience by giving up some part of security.

LastPass announced a breach on Monday –not their first. They said that “LastPass account email addresses, password reminders, server per user salts, and authentication hashes were compromised.”

For mitigation: They have told their user community that they will require verification when a user logs in from a new device or IP address. In addition,

  1. You should change your master password, particularly if you have a weak password. If you used your master password on other sites, you should change those passwords as well.
  2. To make a strong password, make it long and strong. It should be at least 15 characters—longer is better—contain upper- and lowercase letters, digits, and symbols. It should not contain family, pet, or friend names, hobby or sports references,  birthdates, wedding anniversaries, or topics you blog about. Passphrases are a good idea, and you can make them even more secure by taking the first letter of each word of a long phrase that you will remember. For example:

    I love the Wizard of Oz! It was my favorite movie when I was a child.


    IltWoO! IwmfmwIwac$

    Everywhere a letter is used a second time, substitute a numeral or symbol, and it will be difficult to crack:

    IltWo0! 1>mf3wi<@c$

  3. When you create a LastPass master password, it will ask you to create a reminder. Let’s say you took your childhood dog’s name, added the number “42,” and the color “blue” because he had a blue collar to make your new master password: osC@R-forty2-Blew! If your reminder is “dog 42 blue,” your password could be much easier to crack. Maybe you even talked about Oscar in a Facebook post. So again, do not use a pet’s name in your password. Then put something in for the reminder that has no relation to your password: “Blank” or “Poughkeepsie” for instance.
  4. Keep your master password someplace safe. Do not leave a copy in clear text on your phone or your computer or taped to your monitor. Put it in a locked drawer or better—your safe deposit box.
  5. Back up your password database periodically to a device you store offline, and printing the list and storing both the printout and the backup in a sealed envelope in your safe deposit box is a good idea as well.
  6. Use two-factor authentication. If you don’t know anything about it, this Google account article will explain it.

You might know and follow the general rules for creating a good password. Apparently, no one else does.

The “25 Worst Passwords” is an annual press release from SplashData, which sells password management tools. They also tap into the resources provided by similar security reporting firms. Those reports from recent news stories illustrate that most people seem to be really bad at inventing new passwords. Writing about the Adobe website breach of 2013 PC World revealed that ‘adobe123’ and ‘photoshop’ were very common choices. An article from the BBC cited security researcher Per Thorsheim. He pointed out that the color schemes of Twitter, Facebook, and Google, all lead people to include the word “blue” in their passwords.

As a result, more websites require you to use a Mix of Upper and Lower Case, and also to include $pecial C#aracters and Numb3rs. The password photoshop becames !Ph0t0$hop* and that should be more secure.

However, what really makes that more secure is not the mix of characters but the two additional symbols. The ! and * at the beginning and end turn a string of 9 characters into a string of 11. The basic arithmetic of computing says that the longer something is, the harder it is to guess. Your bank transfers money with cipher strings of 200 digits. We call them “computationally difficult” to crack.

“Black hat hackers” build special computers to attack passwords. One of those homebrew boxes broke every Windows-standard 8-character password in under 6 hours. A lesser machine revealed 90% of the passwords on LinkedIn. However, if you have an 11-character password those powerful crackers would need 515 years to work through all the possible combinations. And yet, long as they are “AmericanTheBeautiful” and “ToBeOrNotToBe” are known phrases.

Those networks of multiple game processors also grind through huge databases of words and proper names in English and their many variations. . Passages from the Bible, quotations from Shakespeare, and other cultural artifacts add to the databases.  Black hat hackers have mammoth dictionaries of known passwords. Those are compiled from the revelations of each successful attack.

Password Cracking Machine

Jeremi Gosney’s High Performance Computer. The rapidly-moving graphics of games are computationally intensive. So, the central processor and parallel processors of the Xbox, PlayStation, and others rely on co-processors designed for rapid arithmetic. That makes them perfect for running billions of guesses per second.

It is also true that some websites prevent you from using special characters. You might be instructed to keep your passwords to Upper and Lower Case Letters and the numerals 0 through 9. Restricted like that, all of the possible 11-character passwords can be broken in just 4 years. Turn the computer on; let it run day and night; it churns out passwords.

The reason why you sometimes are restricted from special characters is that the Dollar $ign and <Greater-than Less-than> and @some others# are common to programming systems and languages such as SQL (pronounced “sequel”) and Java. So, in place of the password, a hacker inserts a line of computer code to open up the website to their commands. Such SQL attacks are common.

BBC Cat 2

“If you have a cat, or any other type of pet, do not use its name as part of a password.” – BBC

That brings us to the corporations and organizations that allow your data to be stolen. SQL attacks are an old, known problem. But everyone is busy. And businesses cut costs by releasing employees. So, successful attacks are inevitable. The key to security is not just to put up barriers. Victims must act quickly, decisively, and effectively when those firewalls are breached. And they will be breached. It is not a matter of “if” but of “when.” For over 20 years, even the FBI has suffered periodic intrusions.   Rather than requiring you to have a ridiculously difficult password, the system administrators should just do their jobs.

But this is the Information Age. We all have computers, phones, pads, notebooks, and networks. That puts the burden back on you.

We give out our usernames and passwords all too easily. Spam Nation is new book by Brian Krebs. Formerly a technology writer for the Washington Post, Krebs more recently investigated two Russian “businessmen” who apparently controlled the world’s largest floods of spam email. They sold fake Viagra and fake vicodin, fake Gucci and fake Rolex. Millions of people bought them. From all indications, the crooks really did deliver the goods. In doing that, they acquired millions of usernames and passwords. And people are lazy.

If you have the same log-in credentials for illegal drugs that you do for your bank account, you have only yourself to blame when a drug dealer steals your money.

Brian Krebs writes a very readable blog.

Brian Krebs writes a very readable blog.

But the same breach could come through the garden club, the library charity, your school, or work. How many log-in accounts have you had since the Worldwide Web was launched in 1991? According to Brian Krebs, it is your responsibility to keep yourself safe by keeping your identities separate.

Even Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, and Batgirl manage only two lives each, not twenty. You may need a password manager. PC Magazine, PC World, MacWorld, and InfoWorld all review and evaluate password managers. It is a start. Of course, if your home Wi-Fi network is open to the public, then you have a different problem, entirely.