For many years, passwords were considered to be an acceptable form of protecting privacy when it came to the digital world. However, as cryptography and biometrics started to become more widely available, the flaws in this simple method of authentication became more noticeable.
It’s worth taking into account the role of a leaked password in one of the biggest cyber security stories of the last two years, the SolarWinds hack. It was revealed that ‘solarwinds123’, a password created and leaked by an intern, had been publicly accessible through a private GitHub repository since June 2018, enabling hackers to plan and carry out the massive supply chain attack. Despite this, even if the password hadn’t been leaked, it wouldn’t have been hard for attackers to guess it. In the words of US politician Katie Porter, most parents utilise a stronger password to stop their children from “watching too much YouTube on their iPad”.
Passwords that are weak or easy to guess are more common than you might expect: recent findings from the NCSC found that around one in six people uses the names of their pets as their passwords, making them highly predictable. To make matters worse, these passwords tend to be reused across multiple sites, with one in three people (32%) having the same password to access different accounts.
Phishing is among the most common password-stealing techniques currently in use today and is often used for other types of cyber attacks. Rooted in social engineering tactics, its success is predicated on being able to deceive a victim with seemingly legitimate information while acting on malicious intent.
Businesses are highly aware of the widespread phishing attempts on their employees and often conduct phishing training exercises on them, both with explicit notice and on unwitting individuals. Usually carried out through email, success with phishing can also be achieved with other communication forms such as over SMS text messaging, known as ‘smishing’. Phishing typically involves sending an email to a recipient while including as many elements within the email as possible to make it appear legitimate i.e. company signatures, correct spelling and grammar, and more sophisticated attacks recently attach onto existing email threads with phishing coming later in the attack chain. From there, attackers will try and encourage the user into downloading and opening a malicious document or another type of file - usually malware - to achieve whatever the attacker wants. This could be stealing passwords, infecting them with ransomware, or even staying stealthily hidden in the victim’s environment to act as a backdoor for future attacks performed remotely.
Computer literacy has increased over the years and many users are well trained in how to spot a phishing email. The telltale clues are now widely known, and people know when and how to report a suspicious email at work. Only the very best campaigns are genuinely convincing, like with the aforementioned email hijack campaigns. The days of emails from supposed princes in Nigeria looking for an heir, or firms acting on behalf of wealthy deceased relatives, are few and far between these days, although you can still find the odd, wildly extravagant, claim here and there. Our recent favourite is the case of the first Nigerian astronaut who is unfortunately lost in space and needs us to act as a man in the middle for a $3 million dollar transfer to the Russian Space Agency – which apparently does return flights.
Speaking of social engineering, this typically refers to the process of tricking users into believing the hacker is a legitimate agent. A common tactic is for hackers to call a victim and pose as technical support, asking for things like network access passwords in order to provide assistance. This can be just as effective if done in person, using a fake uniform and credentials, although that’s far less common these days.
Successful social engineering attacks can be incredibly convincing and highly lucrative, as was the case when the CEO of a UK-based energy company lost £201,000 to hackers after they tricked him with an AI tool that mimicked his assistant’s voice.
Keyloggers, screen scrapers, and a host of other malicious tools all fall under the umbrella of malware, malicious software designed to steal personal data. Alongside highly disruptive malicious software like ransomware, which attempts to block access to an entire system, there are also highly specialised malware families that target passwords specifically.
Keyloggers, and their ilk, record a user’s activity, whether that’s through keystrokes or screenshots, which is all then shared with a hacker. Some malware will even proactively hunt through a user’s system for password dictionaries or data associated with web browsers.
Brute force attacks refer to a number of different methods of hacking that all involve guessing passwords in order to access a system.
A simple example of a brute force attack would be a hacker simply guessing a person’s password based on relevant clues, however, they can be more sophisticated than that. Credential recycling, for example, relies on the fact that many people reuse their passwords, some of which will have been exposed by previous data breaches. Reverse brute force attacks involve hackers taking some of the most commonly used passwords and attempting to guess associated usernames.
Most brute force attacks employ some sort of automated processing, allowing vast quantities of passwords to be fed into a system.
The dictionary attack is a slightly more sophisticated example of a brute force attack. This uses an automated process of feeding a list of commonly-used passwords and phrases into a computer system until something fits. Most dictionaries will be made up of credentials gained from previous hacks, although they will also contain the most common passwords and word combinations.
This technique takes advantage of the fact that many people will use memorable phrases as passwords, which are usually whole words stuck together. This is largely the reason why systems will urge the use of multiple character types when creating a password.
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