World Kill the Password Day

This World Password Day, let’s examine why the world has not yet managed to kill the password.

Today is World Password Day. It’s also Star Wars Day, which will get far more attention from far more people (May the Fourth be with you). It also happens to be National Orange Juice Day. And a few other days. This confusion is appropriate for World Password Day, because while the occasion is about improving password habits, the world has turned decidedly against passwords. Headlines from the past few years demonstrate a consistent stream of invective toward them:

2013: “PayPal and Apple Want to Kill Your Password
2014: “Inside Twitter’s ambitious plan to kill the password
2015: “White House goal: Kill the password
2016: “Google aims to kill passwords by the end of this year
2017: “Facebook wants to kill the password

And yet, not one of these efforts has succeeded in “killing the password”—as we can see from the fact that every major online service still requires them.

Why is this the case? To explore this question, it is useful to first examine the function that passwords serve. Online applications must ensure that only authorized users are able to access their data or functionality. In order to do this, the application requires some form of proof that the user who is accessing the application is who they say they are. Passwords are a “shared secret” between the authorized user and the application, and if the user accessing the application demonstrates they know this secret, the application assumes that they are the authorized user. Unfortunately, unauthorized users may learn this shared secret, through various types of attacks, so passwords simply do not provide a good proof of identity. And yet, the password continues to be the universal method of online authentication.

So what about all of the technologies that have gained popularity in recent years, like two-factor authentication using mobile devices and fingerprint scanners? Let’s take a look at some of these alternatives and why they haven’t been able to replace passwords.

Standard biometrics, like fingerprint and iris-based authentication, are convenient in that you always have them available on your person, but you obviously cannot change them. Soft biometrics, like voice and typing pattern analysis, are similar convenient, but have too much variation to be used for anything but negative authentication. Hard and soft tokens, in the form of dedicated hardware or personal mobile devices, are inconvenient to access and often difficult to use. And finally, device-based authentication is also only suitable for negative authentication, since users use multiple devices or may lose their authorized device.

There are some common benefits and drawbacks of these approaches which start to appear. This is because every system for authentication fits into the well-known framework of:

1. Something you know (such as a password)
2. Something you have (such as a mobile phone)
3. Something you are (such as a fingerprint)

The problem is that each part of this framework has different strengths and weaknesses. “Something you know” is convenient and changeable, but it can also be stolen easily, especially if copied somewhere and stored insecurely. “Something you have” is harder to steal, but is also not always with you. And “Something you are” is always available to you, but the description of what you are (say, a scan of your iris) cannot be changed if stolen from an insecure service that stored it. What this means is that the only true replacement for passwords will come from a mechanism that offers the same benefits as “something you know”, and yet somehow addresses its drawbacks.

Security challenge questions: the worst second factor

Some systems have tried to use security challenge questions as an additional authentication factor, especially for password recovery, but these are one of the worst developments in online security. Their problem is that they combine the drawbacks of passwords (answers can be stolen through data breaches), with the drawbacks of biometrics (you can’t change your mother’s maiden name or the street where you grew up), and add their own unique drawbacks (answers can be guessed through social media). Most security professionals now enter random information into such security challenge questions, but that effectively creates additional passwords, which offer no benefit over a single, strong password, except for use as a backup password.

But there is a more fundamental conflict which underpins our continued reliance on passwords: the fact that security and convenience are usually at odds. Moving toward three-factor authentication (one factor from each category), using a combination of something like a password, a soft token, and biometrics, one can create a relatively secure authentication mechanism, but this is much less convenient for most users.

Users value convenience over security (yet still expect security)

For many years, the public has been learning of the need for everyone to select strong passwords. But most people still don’t. Recently, because of the Yahoo and other data breaches, the public started to learn that even if they select strong passwords, they should never reuse them across sites. But most people still do. Password managers aren’t silver bullets, and are subject to their own vulnerabilities, but their widespread use would dramatically improve both of the above issues. Unfortunately, most people don’t use them. Multi-factor authentication, specifically two-factor authentication using mobile phones, is now offered on most major online services. While everyone should enable it, most people won’t, due to the difficulty of use or the lack of convenience.

Security professionals and other security-conscious users are getting more and more options, but the average person continues to value convenience and ease of use above all else, and would like security to simply be provided for them automatically. They don’t want to have to take responsibility for preventing their online bank account from being hacked—they want the bank to take care of that.

In fact, since users will quickly abandon services that are too difficult to use, online services focus much more on improving usability than on security. This is illustrated by a step back in security that technology companies have taken over the years, by standardizing on the use of email addresses as usernames. In the past, you could set a unique username for each account, making it far more difficult for cybercriminals to gain access to your account on one service by stealing your credentials from another. But since remembering both usernames and passwords was hard for users, and online services needed users’ email addresses anyway, they have collectively chosen to consolidate the username and email address into a single identifier. This, of course, has fuelled credential stuffing attacks and automated fraud across all major online services, leveraging billions of spilled credentials through attack tools like Sentry MBA.

The future includes more passwords, for now

The reason that we still have passwords is because we as users continue to demand their advantages, and haven’t come up with anything that preserves those while addressing their drawbacks. Similar to Winston Churchill’s observation on democracy, we might say that passwords are the worst form of authentication—except for all the others that have been tried.

While users are becoming more security conscious, and are learning to accept the friction of multi-factor authentication for the benefit of security, a sea change in user behavior isn’t happening anytime soon. This shifts the burden for security and fraud protection back to online service providers. Given the constraint of delivering a friction-free experience to their users, they are now investing in layered, invisible security mechanisms. These mechanisms allow them to provide the benefits of passwords with defense against their drawbacks, by doing things such as detecting when stolen passwords are used (as recommended by NIST) or protecting against credential stuffing attacks.

It’s World Password Day. While technologies like Apple’s Touch ID afford us great conveniences, and may eventually result in many people being able to bypass re-entering their passwords much of the time, they do not replace those passwords. We’re not “killing” the password anytime soon, so this May 4th, let’s make sure we continue to promote good password practices.

2017 Credential Spill Report

social_media_10largest_spillsOver the past 12 months, we have seen dozens of the world’s largest online services report that they had been breached by attackers who were able to gain access to their customers’ login credential data. By the end of 2016, over three billion credentials in total were reported stolen, at an average pace of one new credential spill reported every week.

These numbers are a record and include the two largest reported credential spills of all time, both by Yahoo. Near the end of the year, the National Institute of Standards and Technology published the Draft NIST Special Publication 800-63B Digital Identity Guidelines, recommending that online account systems check their users’ passwords against known spilled credential lists.

As the size and frequency of credential spills appears to be increasing, today we are publishing the 2017 Credential Spill Report. This report includes key findings from the credential spills reported in the past year and data from the Shape network to provide insight into the scale of credential theft and how stolen credentials are used.

In particular, stolen credentials are now used every day in credential stuffing attacks on all major online services. In these attacks, cybercriminals test for the reuse of passwords across websites and mobile applications. In the past, announcements of credential spills would focus on the security of accounts at the organization which reported the data breach, but now people are realizing that the widespread reuse of passwords by users across websites means that a breach on one account system endangers all other account systems.

At Shape, we have a unique view into this activity because our technology protects the world’s most attacked web and mobile applications—those run by the largest corporations in financial services, retail, travel, and other industries, as well as the largest government agencies—on a 24/7 basis.

Key statistics from spills reported in the past year include:

Over 3 billion credentials were reported stolen in 2016.

  • 51 companies reported suffering a breach where user credentials were stolen.
  • Yahoo in 2016 reported the two largest credential spills of all time. The next largest credential spills in 2016 were reported by Friend Finder, MySpace, Badoo and LinkedIn.
  • Tech companies had the largest total number of spilled credentials (1.75 billion).
  • The gaming industry had the largest number of companies with spills (11).

From Shape’s network data, we also observed:

  • 90% of login requests on many of the world’s largest web and mobile applications is attributable to traffic from credential stuffing attacks.
  • There is up to a 2% success rate for account takeover from credential stuffing attacks, meaning that cybercriminals are taking over millions of accounts across the Internet on a daily basis as a result of credential spills.
  • Credential stuffing attacks are now the single largest source of account takeover on most major websites and mobile applications.
  • One Fortune 100 retailer experienced a credential stuffing attack with over 10,000 login attempts in one day coming from the cybercriminal attack tool Sentry MBA, which is the most popular credential stuffing software and appears to be used to attack nearly every company in every industry.
  • Analyzing 15.5M account login attempts for one customer during a four month period, over 500K accounts were confirmed to be on publicly spilled credential lists.

Dealing with credential spills and the credential stuffing attacks that they fuel is a complex topic. Here are some basic recommended actions for consumers and enterprises:

The most important takeaway for consumers is that you should never reuse passwords across online accounts. Selecting a strong password is not enough; if you have reused that same password on multiple sites, and one of those sites is breached, your accounts on all of the other sites where you have used the same password are now at risk.

For companies, a lot of public attention is focused on any organization that experiences a data breach and loses control of their users’ credentials. However, the real issue other companies should focus on is protecting themselves against those passwords being used to attack them and their own users. Credential stuffing attacks easily bypass simple security controls like CAPTCHA and Web Application Firewalls, so relying on those mechanisms does not offer any protection. Controls like two-factor authentication can help, but of course come with other drawbacks.

In any case, getting educated is the best course of action. The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) provides a starting point for learning about credential stuffing and other automated attacks in their list of OWASP Automated Threats To Web Applications.

To learn more, download the full 2017 Credential Spill Report.

Dan Woods,

Director, Shape Intelligence Center

The Right to Buy Tickets

Young people waiting in line to buy tickets in NewYork.

With President Obama’s signing of the Better Online Ticket Sales (BOTS) Act of 2016 and the passing of recent legislation in New York, there are signs of hope that beginning in 2017, humans may once again have a fighting chance of purchasing a ticket to a hot concert, show or event.

It took ticket prices reaching $1000 per head for the award-winning Broadway show “Hamilton”, to force action against ticket bots getting the best seats in the house. Lin-Manuel Miranda who created and stars in Hamilton wrote a compelling Op-Ed in the New York Times in June 2016 entitled “Stop the Bots from Killing Broadway.” Finally, in December New York Gov. Cuomo passed a bill to make ticket bot purchases illegal. As one of the founding fathers of the US Constitution, it seems that Hamilton would have approved of an amendment that protected “the right to buy tickets.”

So how did ticket bots get control over the ticket purchases? The cybercriminal ecosystem has evolved over the past few years to make it easier to launch automated attacks on web and mobile apps with the purpose of stealing assets. In the case of ticket bots, automated scripts running on rented botnets enable the immediate and rapid purchase of tickets to popular events once they go on sale. Humans don’t have a chance against a machine intent on purchasing tickets. Until now.

With the recently passed ticket bot legislation, it is officially illegal to use ticket bots with the purpose of automated purchasing. Now ticket sellers  are protected against fraud by state fines and possible jail time as a deterrent.  With this new legislation, ticket sellers must also tighten up their defenses so that they can prevent the use of ticket bots proactively. Just stating that the use of automation and ticket bots is not allowed will no longer be sufficient as a defense.

Enforcing this legislation will have some challenges given the number of parties involved in automated ticket purchases. The illegal ticket reseller is in many cases at the outer edge of a cybercriminal ecosystem that is rapidly building out infrastructure and services on the Dark Web. In addition to automated ticket purchases, automated credential stuffing attacks for account takeover and malicious content scraping are affecting retail, travel and ecommerce businesses. The threat of fines and possible jail time for ticket bots will hopefully go some way to drying up some of the demand for cybercriminal automation.

Shows such as Hamilton were created for humans to enjoy, and at Shape Security we believe consumers shouldn’t have to fight bots to get a ticket. Every day at Shape Security we help major companies defend against automated attacks by bots, and we applaud this new legislation outlawing ticket bots.

The Half-Day Attack: From Compromise to Cash with Sentry MBA

Sentry MBA-2

Sentry MBA, an automated attack tool used to take over accounts on major websites, makes cybercrime accessible to legions of attackers across the globe. Sentry MBA illustrates the pivotal role automation plays in online attacks and shows how cybercrime is increasingly compartmentalized and commoditized.

Allow me to illustrate with a short story.

Let’s say you’re a would-be cybercriminal looking to make some quick cash. There are many ways to make money on the Internet – especially if you think shoplifting’s a harmless recreational activity – so you hatch a plan to break into your favorite online electronics retailer’s website, order a few televisions, and have them shipped somewhere you can grab them.

But you have a problem: finding website vulnerabilities requires technical skills you just don’t possess. And even if you were a sophisticated cybercriminal, who really wants to spend their valuable time crafting SQL injection or cross-site scripting attacks? It’s far easier to just hijack a few user accounts. The authors of Verizon’s data breach report said as much: “With so many credential lists available for sale or already in the wild, why should a criminal actually earn his/her keep through SQL injection when a simple login will suffice?”

After doing some research, you may stumble across a tool like Sentry MBA. You might not have the technical expertise to research and hand-craft a targeted online exploit, but with Sentry MBA you can launch sophisticated and damaging attacks that are capable of penetrating the defenses employed by major corporations.

It’s a numbers game that works because so many people use the same passwords for multiple online accounts. Any list of stolen credentials will almost certainly include some that allow you to access accounts on the site you’ve targeted. Once you’re in, the retailer is your oyster. You can order any fancy gadget you please with the victim’s stored credit card number, change the ship-to address for your delivery convenience, and resell the goods for cash. Once you’ve maxed out one credit card, just rinse and repeat for all the accounts you cracked.

Sentry MBA automates the process of testing millions, or tens of millions, of username/password combinations to see which ones work. Without automation that task is impossibly time-consuming.

Shape Security protects websites and mobile applications by detecting and preventing automated attacks, including credential stuffing attempts. Shape analyzed a sample of our customer data consisting of six billion login and search page submissions from December of 2015 through January of 2016 and found that Sentry MBA attacks were commonplace. Here are some anonymized examples of the attacks we found:

  • Over one week in December, cybercriminals made over 5 million login attempts at a Fortune 100 B2C website using multiple attack groups and hundreds of thousands of proxies located throughout the world
  • Over two days in January, a large retailer saw two major Sentry MBA attacks with over 20,000 total login attempts
  • During one day in January, a large retailer witnessed over 10,000 login attempts used Sentry MBA and over 1000 proxies
  • Two attacks in December highlight how cybercriminals are turning their attention to mobile APIs. The first attack, focused on the target’s traditional website application, made over 30,000 login attempts using proxies located in eastern Europe. The second attack, focused on the target’s mobile API, made over 10,000 login attempts on a daily basis. Both attacks shared hundreds of IP addresses and other characteristics, indicating the same actors may have been responsible.

By reducing the level of technical skill needed to mount a sophisticated cyberattack, Sentry MBA brings damaging attacks within reach of more and more cybercriminals. The open web and darknet are filled with forums offering working Sentry MBA configuration files for specific sites and credential lists to try. These underground markets, combined with automated tools like Sentry MBA, create a new cybersecurity reality where devastating online attacks can be launched by any individual with minimal resources.

The best way to stop Sentry MBA attacks is to detect and deflect them before they take over accounts through your website or mobile application API. Shape Security protects you and your customers from online fraud committed by cybercriminals using automated attack frameworks, whether they are Sentry MBA or other toolkits.

For an in-depth exploration of Sentry MBA, please see our post from our research team: A look at Sentry MBA.

Avivah Litan at Gartner: Impact of Automated Attacks on B2C Websites

 

Avivah Litan, Gartner VP and distinguished analyst, is well known for covering big data analytics for cybersecurity & fraud as well as fraud detection & prevention solutions. In this educational webcast, she discusses automated website attacks and their impact on global business to consumer (B2C) brands.

Refer to this link to view the webcast.
Key highlights include:

  • How Gartner defines automated attacks on websites
  • How existing controls, such as device analytics, velocity checks, geolocation, and IP address whitelisting are defeated by attackers
  • How cybercriminals monetize their automated website attacks
  • And, most importantly, how to stop automated attacks