Account churn

In my latest post I singled out ne of the worst security experiences I’ve had with a service, but that is by far not the only bad experience I had. Indeed, given that I’ve been actively hunting down my old accounts and tried to get my hands on them, I can tell you that I have plenty of material to fill books with bad examples.

First of all, there is the problem of migrating the email addresses. For the longest time I’ve been using my GMail address to register everywhere, but then I decided to migrate to use my own domain (especially since Gandi supports two factor authentication, which makes it much safer). Unfortunately that means that not only I have a bunch of accounts still on the old email address, but I also have duplicate accounts.

Duplicate accounts become even more tricky when you consider that I had my own company, which meant I had double accounts for things that did not allow me to ship sometimes with a VAT ID attached, and sometimes not. Sometimes I could close the accounts (once I dropped the VAT ID), and sometimes I couldn’t, so a good deal of them are still out there.

FInally, there are the services that are available in multiple countries but with country-specific accounts. Which, don’t be mistaken, does not mean that every country has its own account database! It simply means that a given account is assigned to a country and does not work on any other. In most cases you cannot even migrate your account across countries. This is the case, for instance, of OVH, and why I moved to Gandi but also of PayPal (in which the billing address is tied to the country of the account and can’t be changed), IKEA and -PSN- Sony Online Entertainment. The end result is that I have duplicated (or even triplicated) accounts to cover the fact I have lived in multiple countries by now.

Also, it turns out that I completely forgot how many services I registered to over the years. Yes I have the passwords as stored by Chrome, but that’s not a comprehensive list as some of the most critical passwords have never been saved there (such as my bank’s password), plus some websites I have never used in Chrome, and at some point I had it clean the history of passwords and start from scratch. Some of the passwords have been saved in sgeps so I could look them up there, but even those are not a complete list. I ended up looking in my old email content to figure out which accounts I forgot having. The results have been fun.

But what about the grievances? Some of the accounts I wanted to gain access to again ended up being blocked or deleted, I’m surprised by the amount of services that either were killed, or moved around. At least three ebook stores I used are now gone, two of which absorbed by Kobo, while Marks & Spencer refused to recognize my email as valid, I assume they at some point reset their user database or something. Some of the hotel loyalty programs I signed up before and used once or twice disappeared, or were renamed/merged into something else. Not a huge deal but it makes account management a fun problem.

Then there are the accounts that got their password invalidated in the mean time, so even if I have a copy of it, it’s useless. Given that some accounts I had not logged into for years, that’s fair to happen: between leaks, heartbleed, and the overdue changes in best practices for password storage, I am more bothered by the services that did not invalidate my password in the mean time. But then again, there are different ways to deal with it. Some services when trying to login with the previous password point out that it’s no long valid and proceed with the same Forgotten password request workflow. Others will send you the password by email in plain text.

One quite egregious case happened with an Italian electronics shop, one of the first online-only stores I know of in Italy. Somehow, I knew that the account was still active, mostly because I could see their newsletter in the spam folder of my GMail account. So I went and asked for the password back, to change the address and stop the newsletter too (given I don’t live in Italy any longer), they sent me back the userid and password in cleartext. They reset their passwords in the mean time, and the default password became my Italian tax ID. Not very safe, if I were to know the user id of anyone else, knowing their tax ID is easy, as it can be calculated based on a few personal, but not so secret, details (full name, sex, date and city of birth).

But there is something worse than unannounced password resets. The dance of generating a new password. I have now the impression that it’s a minority of services that actually allow you to use whichever password you want. Lots of the services I have changed password for between last night and today required me to disable the non-alphanumeric symbols, because either they don’t support any non-alphanumeric character, or they only support a subset that LastPass does not let you select.

But this is not as bothersome as the length limitation of passwords. Most sites will be happy to tell you that they require a minimum of 6 or 8 characters for your password — few will tell you upfront the maximum length of a password. And very few of those that won’t tell you right away will fix the mistake by telling you when the password is too long, how long it can be. I even found sites that simply error out on you when you try to use a password that is not valid, and decide to invalidate both your old and temporary passwords, while not accepting the new one. It’s a serious pain.

Finally, I’ve enabled 2FA for as many services as I could; some of it is particularly bothersome (LinkedIn, I’ll probably write more about that), but at least it’s an extra safety. Unfortunately, I still find it extremely bothersome neither Google Authenticator nor RedHat’s FreeOTP (last time I tried) supported backing up the private keys of the configured OTPs. Since I switched between three phones in the past three months, I could use some help when having to re-enroll my OTP generators — I upgraded my phone, then had to downgrade because I broke the screen of the new one.

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