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Password management failures

As it happens, today’s news seem to cover a new skirmish in what some people seem to have exaggerated into calling an “infowar”; after the repeated DDoS – repercussions of which I’m sure we’ll e able to see in a matter of months – the prey this time has been the “A-list blog” Gawker and the results, well, are kinda sad.

You can see a basic report on The Next Web but the more interesting reading is the post on Forbes by Daniel Kennedy that goes into detail of what kind of technical failures there have been with Gawker’s security process.

What really baffles me is how is it possible for anybody to still store password in anything but properly salted hashes. Hey guys, we’re in 2010 now, most of your infrastructure is outsource and is thus available to a number of people beside your intimate administrators, even if you didn’t incite a group of hackers to attack your system!

Interestingly, in all this, the centralised password storage approach seem to actually come out pretty nice: Facebook Connect users who used that to comment on Gawker were safe because their password never left the Facebook infrastructure (and as much as you can say about it, I’d be surprised if they didn’t have a better password storage than that!). So this time I can safely say that they got out of the glorified phonebook that I have considered it in the past few years (which actually is quite an interesting approach when you have an Android phone that syncs the local phonebook with Facebook: having the person’s unique chosen photo appear is faster than reading the name).

At any rate, it happens that a lot of web application and systems still send your password back in cleartext of email when yo ask for a reminder, rather than sending you a one-time token to reset it (or cancel the reset altogether). A week or two a go a friend of mine, who’s not as security savvy as me, had his GMail account compromised; as me and most other GMail users, if it’s not spam, the mail is never deleted, and since he’s not that much into security, he didn’t get into much trouble to delete the password reminders or registration confirmation, so I suggested him to search on his own for “your password” and variations, and change the passwords for all the services that ever sent him an email like that — after changing the password to GMail itself, as well. There were a ton.

Interestingly enough, if I search for “your password” on my GMail account (that uses the strongest password I can remember easily, and yet it’s unique just like root password on my vservers – users are not allowed with password at all, root is only allowed for su – and the passwords for most webservices, even if “blander”), I also get some hits. And yes I tend to be careful with these things; of course only two are actually recent enough to matter: one is the registration to Telltale Games and the other … password — I’ll be back soon at this. The latest instance that I can remember of a service sending me my own password by mail in cleartext has been an Italian webshop (and what’s up with the URL? never mind).

Back to the case. If you remember is not the first time I write about passwords and last time I also noted one thing: do not just change my password. Now in this case the situation is a bit more complex: when Oracle acquired Sun, one of the things that made sense to do was definitely the merge of infrastructure (as an outsider, that looked a lot like resource waste; on the other hand, an interview to Scott McNealy can easily point out the underlying cause: factions within the company). This also meant they had to restructure the accounts, which meant a new password. This is probably one of the few cases where you can reset user passwords and send them a (one-time!) password on your own.

Finally, a bit of a reflection: when will browsers start supporting client-side certificates well enough that one can actually start using those as a first-class citizen in the webservice landscape? Although I admit I have never looked into whether Rails make it easy to deal with client-side certificates for login. Any suggestion on the matter would definitely be interesting.

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