Hollywood portrays hackers as superpowered math geniuses who can intimidate computers into giving them whatever they want through intense keyboard mashing. Even outside of movies, they are feared as something like mysterious and powerful wizards -- the infamous hacker Kevin Mitnick was ordered to never use any networked technology more advanced than a pay phone, for fear that he could whistle a tone that would start a nuclear war.
But in reality, almost every "hacking" exploit that you hear about compromising some database or other is done with very simple methods that, many times, require no computer at all.
They can do that because our computers aren't secure, and never will be, thanks to the fact that ...
The four most common passwords (according to Mark Burnett's 2005 book Perfect Passwords) are "1234," "123456," "12345678" and "password." (The fifth is "pussy" -- No, really.) On the next level of password caution, you'll find something like "dolphins." ("It's because I really like dolphins!")
Unfortunately, dolphins are notoriously terrible at information security. Hence their defeat in the Great Orca War.
Yet if you ask a website to generate a password for you, you'll get something like Yzivlq$0X?9. The difference is that most humans can't memorize much beyond seven digits unless there's some other meaning attached to help us remember. So we have to use an actual word instead of random character strings; otherwise, we'll never retain it.
The problem is that even if you use an uncommon word (such as "adelphogamy"), you are making it massively easier for a bad guy to guess your password. The average new computer can guess 10 million passwords a second. For reference, the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary lists about 600,000 words, and the average adult knows a fraction of that.
That means if your password is a word or even one of thousands of common names, an attacker can have your password faster than hands can type it. Even if you add a number to the end of the word, like "hunter2" or "entropy9," you've only increased the time it takes to crack to half a second.
It's not hard to make a secure password, one that's not a word and is reasonably long but still is easy to remember and quick to type. Take a phrase you know by heart, such as "Every Halloween, the trees are filled with underwear; every spring, the toilets explode." Now, type out the first letter of every word in that phrase, picking different letters or adding punctuation wherever feels natural for you, resulting in a password like "eHttRfwu;estte." By using something that isn't a word and never has been, you're increasing the pool of necessary guesses exponentially.
But even then ...
"I_love_golf" is an easy password to crack. "I_love_women_with_no panties_teeing_off_on_my_face_while_gophers_finger_my_asshole" is a little harder for robots to guess.
One survey found that, in public, 70 percent of people would give out their passwords in exchange for chocolate.
On one hand, this is a stunning indictment of just how shortsighted people can be. On the other hand, MOTHERFUCKINGCHOCOLATE!
A favorite strategy of the hacker mentioned above, Kevin Mitnick, didn't involve either supercomputers or a criminal mastermind brain. Once he decided what corporation he wanted to hack into, he'd just go into its trash. Not to find some list of passwords, but to dig up an organization chart so that he could call up an employee claiming to be a co-worker whose boss needed the password to get into the company's server (he called it "social engineering").
The only time the words "engineer" and "social" have been that close in years.
Likewise, in 2007 there was a well-publicized rash of Xbox Live accounts suddenly escaping their owners' control, leading to rumors that some master hacker had gotten into Halo developer Bungie's database. In reality, it was all done via conversations over Xbox Live headsets. Like many systems, Xbox Live would verify your password by asking a series of personal questions (more on that later). So the thief would just get into a game with his target and steer the conversations toward subjects such as pets and high school, stealthily probing the target for his secure question answers.
Alternatively, the thief would call Microsoft's tech support and, pretending to be the account holder, basically play on the operator's sympathy until the operator gave in and handed out the info. This problem continues to flare up for Xbox Live users, from skilled gamers such as "Skyllus vBi" to Dan "Shoe" Hsu and Will Tuttle, both editors-in-chief of major gaming publications, all of whom had their accounts stolen in 2008.
Privacy is a myth, folks.
Even Microsoft's Larry "Major Nelson" Hyrb, director of programming for Xbox Live and the closest thing the service has to a human face, had his account hijacked in March 2010, almost three years to the date after he posted the security bulletin above.
Not that we have to hear a human voice in order to hand out our passwords; online scams continue to be rampant. Once, a system administrator sent out an email telling users not to respond to fake "what is your user name and password" phishing forms. He included a sample form to show people what to look out for -- then saw users reply to him with their user names and passwords, because the sample phishing form he sent along asked them to.
Presumably, emailing these people directions for performing the Heimlich maneuver would lead to an epidemic of fatal chokings.
In the mid-90s, Microsoft was tripping over itself to make computers convenient and user-friendly. Microsoft BOB, the operating system with a smiling face, encouraged users to keep all their banking information nestled securely inside a virtual desk. Would-be thieves would be stopped at the virtual front door, where users were prompted for a password. If the user forgot his password, he would be inconvenienced by it only three times, at which point the system would conveniently let him change it.
Microsoft Bob: Because even idiots need to use computers.
Even though this is about as secure as guarding your house with a BEWARE OF FERRET sign in your yard, anything less would have been too inconvenient for the target audience of Microsoft Bob (which ended up being small enough for Microsoft to realize what a terrible idea it was trying).
Unfortunately, this is a fundamental trade-off, and it's one we often don't even notice we're making. For instance, it's convenient to have your browser store all of your passwords so you never need to type anything to look at your bank account, but leaving your laptop open at Starbucks, then coming back and discovering that you've bought the original master recording of In the Court of the Crimson King for a complete stranger is also inconvenient.
So what exactly is a fire witch? Anybody?
There's literally no getting around this; what is convenient for us will also be convenient for intruders. Like those "security questions" they use to verify passwords that allowed those Xbox Live hackers to get in. The whole point of that is if you lose your password, you can get it back quickly and easily and not get locked out of crucial online services. So, on most sites if you lose your password, you simply need to answer a few pre-determined questions ("What was the name of your high school's mascot?") which supposedly only you know.
OK, now let's say you're Sarah Palin in mid-2008. In your private life, you like to use a Yahoo email account that's not subject to the bureaucratic overhead of government records. The downside here is that, because you're Sarah Palin, everything about your past is common, well-publicized knowledge. So some kid on 4chan with a Wikipedia page in one tab and Yahoo's Reset Password page in the other can just copy-paste from the former to the latter to gain access to this email account and spread the contents across the Internet. Even if you're not famous, your high school is on your Facebook page, and 10 seconds of Googling will tell someone what the mascot was. It doesn't take much longer to find out what your mother's maiden name was, and so on.
The best solution here? Lie.
Tell the database that you grew up in "Smurfville." Say that your dog's name was "Cat." Say that your high school mascot was the "Yo Dawg I Heard You Like Passwords So We Password Protected Your Password" (or "The Fightin' YDIHYLPSWPPYPs," as we called them).
Go, Deer Ticks!
But even if you buck the "one password for everything" trend, the Web is going to try to force your hand because ...