You have heard the news. Russian hackers have managed to collect a pile of no less than 1,2 billion stolen user IDs and passwords from approximately 420 000 different sites. That’s a lot of passwords and your own could very well be among them. But what’s really going on here? Why is this a risk for me and what should I do? Read on, let’s try to open this up a bit.
First of all. There are intrusions in web systems every day and passwords get stolen. Stolen passwords are traded on the underground market and misused for many different purposes. This is nothing new. The real news here is just the size of the issue. The Russian hacker gang has used powerful scripts to harvest the Internet for vulnerable systems and automatically hacked them, ending up with this exceptionally large number of stolen passwords. But it is still good that people write and talk about this, it’s an excellent reminder of why your personal passwords habits are important.
Let’s first walk you through how it can go wrong for an ordinary Internet user. Let’s call her Alice.
Alice signs up for a mail account at Google. She’s lucky, firstname.lastname@example.org is free. She’s aware of the basic requirements for good passwords and selects one with upper- and lowercase letters, digits and some special characters.
Alice is quite active on the net and uses Facebook as well as many smaller sites and discussion forums. Many of them accepts email@example.com as the user ID. And it’s very logical to also use the same password, it sort of belongs together with that mail address and who wants to remember many passwords?
Now the evil hackers enter the scene and starts scanning the net for weak systems. Gmail is protected properly and withstands the attacks. But many smaller organizations have sites maintained on a hobby basis, and lack the skills and resources to really harden the site. One of these sites belongs to a football club where Alice is active. The hackers get access to this site’s user database and downloads it all. Now they know the password for firstname.lastname@example.org on that site. Big deal, you might think. The hackers know what games Alice will play in, no real harm done. But wait, that’s not all.
It’s obvious that email@example.com is a Gmail user, so the hackers try her password on gmail.com. Bingo. They have her email, as well as all other data she keeps on the Google sites.
They also scan through a large number of other popular internet sites, including Facebook. Bingo again. Now the hackers have Alice’s Facebook account and probably a couple of other sites too.
Now the hackers starts to use their catch. They can harvest Alice’s accounts for information, mail conversations, other’s contact info and e-mails, documents, credit card numbers, you name it. They can also use her accounts and identity to send spam or do imposter scams, just to list some examples.
So what’s the moral of the story? Alice used a good password but it didn’t protect her in this case. Her error was to reuse the password on many sites. The big sites usually have at least a decent level of security. But if you use the same password on many sites, its level of protection is the same as the weakest site where it has been used. That’s why reusing your main mail password, especially on small shady sites, is a huge no-no.
But it is really inconvenient to use multiple strong passwords, you might be thinking right now. Well, that’s not really the case. You can have multiple passwords if you are systematic and use the right tools. Make up a system where there is a constant part in every password. This part should be strong and contain upper- and lowercase characters, digits and special characters. Then add a shorter variable part for every site. This will keep the passwords different and still be fairly easy to remember.
Still worried about your memory? Don’t worry, we have a handy tool for you. The password manager F-Secure Key.
But what about the initial question? Does this attack by the Russian hackers affect me? What should I do? We don’t know who’s affected as we don’t know (at the time of writing) which sites have been affected. But the number of stolen passwords is big so there is a real risk that you are among them. Anyway, if you recognize yourself in the story about Alice, then it is a good idea to start changing your passwords right away. You might not be among the victims of these Russian hackers, but you will for sure be a victim sooner or later. Secure your digital identities before it happens!
If you on the other hand already have a good system with different passwords on all your sites, then there’s no reason to panic. It’s probably not worth the effort to start changing them all before we know which systems were affected. But if the list of these 420 000 sites becomes public, and you are a user of any of these sites, then it’s important to change your password on that site.