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Breach of nearly 2.7 billion records underlines password flaws

Potentially the biggest personal data breach to date from thousands of sources, some possibly breached as far back as 2008, illustrates the deeply flawed nature of password-based authentication, say industry commentators

A leak of 87GB of 772.9 million emails, 21.2 million passwords and 1.1 billion unique combinations of email addresses and passwords, has been revealed by security researcher Troy Hunt, who also manages the Have I Been Pwned service, which enables users to check if their personal data has been compromised.

The data leak, dubbed Collection #1, comprises 2.6 billion rows of data from 12,000 files and is being shared on hacking forums, Hunt revealed in a blog post.

The data presents a huge threat because cyber criminals can use the email and password combinations to test them across all online accounts using a technique called credential stuffing. This is enabled by the common practice of using the same email and password combination for multiple online and business application accounts.

“People take lists like these that contain our email addresses and passwords, then they attempt to see where else they work,” said Hunt. “The success of this approach is predicated on the fact that people reuse the same credentials on multiple services.”

He said this is a “serious problem” for anyone affected by the breach who has used the same password for multiple accounts.

Sergey Lozhkin, security expert at security firm Kaspersky Lab, warned that this collection can be easily be turned into a single list of emails and passwords. “Then all that attackers need to do is to write a relatively simple software program to check if the passwords are working,” he said.

“The consequences of account access can range from very productive phishing, as criminals can automatically send malicious emails to a victim’s list of contacts, to targeted attacks designed to steal victims’ entire digital identity or money or to compromise their social media network data.”

Hunt encouraged anyone affected by the breach to sign up to a password manager if they are not already using one.

“A password manager provides you with a secure vault for all your secrets to be stored in,” he said, adding that a password manager is also “a rare exception to the rule that adding security means making your life harder – for example, logging on to a mobile app is dead easy”.

Anyone affected by the breach is also advised to change all exposed passwords and ensure that each online account has a unique password.

Read more about data breaches

Of the 2.2 million people who use the Have I Been Pwned service, 768,000 are affected by this breach, said Hunt.

Robin Tombs, CEO and co-founder of London-based technology firm Yoti, said the breach shows just how flawed passwords are for protecting online accounts.

“Millions of people will now have the worry and stress of whether their details are part of this data collection,” he said.

With the average person having 191 passwords, Tombs said convenience often trumps security and many people reuse the same password across different websites.

“While using the same easy-to-remember password makes life easier for individuals managing an ever-growing number of online accounts, it makes it equally simple for hackers to strike,” he said.

Like Hunt, Tombs said password managers store login details securely and eliminate the need to remember passwords. “Crucially, they can be secured with your unique biometrics rather than a master password – meaning only you can access and use your passwords,” he said.

The biggest breach of 2018 exposed the data of half a billion customers of the Marriott hotel group’s Starwood properties, including the St Regis, Westin, Sheraton, Aloft, Le Meridien, Four Points and W Hotel brands.

The second-largest breach was at Twitter, affecting 330 million users when a software bug exposed passwords in plain text. Twitter said there was an issue with its password hashing system, which failed to encrypt passwords and was saving them in plain text.

Read more on Privacy and data protection

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