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Weak passwords still the downfall of enterprise security

Jaikumar Vijayan | April 13, 2012
A recent data breach that exposed the Social Security numbers of more than 255,000 people in Utah has once again highlighted the longstanding but often underestimated risks posed to organizations by weak and default passwords.

When multifactor authentication is used, the measures often involve relatively easy-to-crack knowledge-based authentication (KBA) mechanisms where a user is prompted for an answer to a security question, such as a first pet's name or the name of a favorite movie.

A report released by Verizon last month showed that attacks exploiting weak passwords are still endemic in the retail and hospitality industries. Attackers can still go to a vendor's site, get a client list and "just hit those [clients] with the default or guessable username-password combination," Verizon noted in its report. "These are relatively easy attacks that require little in-depth knowledge or creativity."

The tendency by many people to use the same password for multiple accounts is another huge issue, said John Pescatore, a Gartner analyst.

"A lot of Anonymous' recent success has been in attacks where they have obtained users' passwords to external services and then found the same passwords in use at sensitive internal applications or in email systems," Pescatore said. "What I think we are seeing is really what I like to call 'the curse of the reusable password.' "

One of the most important measures companies can take to ramp up their security is to raise the bar for passwords and authentication mechanisms, he said. "Similar to how you can't shift from 'Park' to 'Drive' without putting your foot on the brake, there ought to be 'safety interlocks' in any piece of software that make it very hard to shift into Drive without changing the default password," he said.

Adam Bosnian, executive vice president of corporate development at Cyber-Ark, a vendor of software for managing administrative passwords, said the problem that companies face is complex. While it's one thing to require that administrators use complex passwords, it's another thing to manage those passwords, he said. What often happens is that multiple administrators might need access to one system, and it is easiest to use a default or easily remembered password to control access to it.

When a complex password is used, administrators need to have three processes: One for securely sharing that password with each other, another process for changing the password when needed, and a third for keeping everyone informed about the changes. These processes can get especially difficult in larger organizations where the number of privileged accounts can be staggering, he said.

"The truth is, anyone trying to protect non-trivial assets should be using multifactor authentication and/or complementary controls to protect themselves," said Peter Lindstrom, an analyst with Spire Security. "The password has too many weaknesses, including the obvious human ones," he said.

Most password schemes that aren't protected by another form of authentication or lockout controls are susceptible to brute-force compromise, where automated tools are used to guess passwords, he said. "At this stage of the IT game, there is really no excuse for using default passwords."

 

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