If it feels like there have been a lot of password hacks this year, it's because there have been more than usual, and Ars Technica's Dan Goodin explains why that is. In short: Password hacking has gotten better, while our password making has gotten worse. "The result: security provided by the average password in 2012 has never been weaker," Goodin writes, which is why it shouldn't surprise you that this year we have heard about security breaches at LinkedIn, eHarmony, Yahoo Voices, and a personal horror story from Wired's Mat Honan. Last year, James Fallows told us about his wife's security situation in The Atlantic story called "Hacked!" And for all the high profile accounts, there are all the ones we don't hear about. It's happening a lot these days.
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But why the sudden uptick? Goodin explains:
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- Our password habits have gotten worse. "The average Web user maintains 25 separate accounts but uses just 6.5 passwords to protect them, according to a landmark study (PDF) from 2007," he writes. We have more things for which we need to create codes and it takes far too much brain space to store 25 different combos. Having the same passwords for various accounts was what did Fallows' wife in. Plus, the passwords we pick are stupid, as we learned from the Yahoo Voices hack, in which "123456" was (still!) a popular choice. It takes 10 minutes to crack a lower case 6 character password. To avoid this possible issue, we have before suggested picking dumb passwords for sites that don't matter.
- Password cracking has gotten better. "Now used increasingly for computing, graphics processors allow password-cracking programs to work thousands of times faster than they did just a decade ago on similarly priced PCs that used traditional CPUs alone," adds Goodin, who details the various tech advancements in hacking. The LinkedIn breach taught us this, leading us to the conclusion that perhaps we need to accept that the modern password isn't good enough anymore.
- There is a hacking network effect. With each hacker password revelation, future thieves learn more about the way the aggregate thinks. "The ever-growing list of leaked passwords allows programmers to write rules that make cracking algorithms faster and more accurate; password attacks have become cut-and-paste exercises that even script kiddies can perform with ease," explains Goodin. For one, it proves people still use "123456" and "password," even after being told lots of time to use better, different passwords. How many of you have started using Gmail's two-tiered authentication?
- Sites have gotten worse at protecting us. Again, a lesson we learned from LinkedIn, in which the company admitted its protective measures weren't good enough. Honan blamed Apple and Amazon for his hack, too. The bulk of Goodin's post goes into the technical specifics of this dangerous state of affairs. Many websites for example don't have enough ""cryptographic 'salt' to passwords to render such attacks infeasible." "To the detriment of millions of Internet users, going without salt is only one of the many sins that popular websites routinely commit against password security," he writes.
Reading Goodin's take confirms to us that we have reached the end of the password as we know it. But what to do now? One could hope that technology fixes everything. Or maybe we should start thinking about the kind of stuff we put on the Internet and how we protect it.