RSA’s Distributed Credential Protection: Yeah They Are Overselling it a Bit.

RSA recently announced their new Distributed Credential Protection (DCP) product which they proudly tout as a “revolutionary” way to secure user credentials. But looking closer (especially at that $160,000 per license price tag), I’m not so sure this product will do much to protect anyone’s credentials.

But let me say this first, the technology itself is absolutely brilliant. Without getting into the details of threshold cryptography (there’s an excellent article by Peter S. Gemmell on page 7 of this PDF), what it does is allow you to split up a secret into any number of parts but you only need a specified number of parts to reproduce the data.

“…let me say this first, the technology itself is absolutely brilliant”

It’s kind of like how you see nuclear missile launches in movies: two people have to insert and turn their keys at the same time to initiate the launch. But threshold cryptography is even more advanced, it would be like handing out 5 keys but you only need any 2 of them to fire the missile. What makes the technology so cool is that it gives you redundancy, integrity, and secrecy but no single piece is useful for obtaining the secret. This technology has many uses in cryptography (it would be perfect for Bitcoin) but I think that RSA’s claim that it will revolutionize password protection is greatly overstated.

The problem is that yes, you are splitting up credentials into multiple parts but all of those parts are components of the same system. It would be like handing both missile launch keys to the same person. Yes, someone would have to steal both keys, but if they can steal one from you couldn’t they just steal the other?

Now one of the claims RSA makes is that if you suspect that an attacker has compromised one of the databases, you can immediately randomize and rescramble the pieces so when they grab the second database the data is useless. So yeah if you happen to catch an attack right after an attacker grabs the first bundle of data but before they grab the second bundle, and you are able to immediately identify all points of intrusion and lock out the attacker so they can’t go back in and re-grab the first bundle, then yes this will work. What are the chances of that happening? Slim to none.

Splitting the databases into two locations is not particularly helpful because both must be accessible to the web server, which is usually the point of entry in these types of attacks, and therefore if an attacker can access one database they can likely access them both. Again, it’s like handing both keys to the same person.

The thing is that RSA’s DCP product is addressing the wrong problem with the wrong solution. The reason most companies get their data leaked is because they have poorly secured their public-facing servers and applications and that they don’t follow best practices for storing user credentials. Both of these problems already have solutions and any organization would be better off spending their money on some code audits and pen-testing.

The fact is that if you have problems with hackers getting into your databases, I think you will still have problems even after shelling out $160,000 for DCP. If you don’t have that problem because you have proper security controls and practices already in place, chances are you don’t even need DCP.

To be fair I have to mention that I have not seen or reviewed this implementation in depth so I could in fact be completely wrong with my criticisms. Perhaps this system could be deployed in such a way that it is much more resilient than I am supposing. And certainly RSA acknowledges that this product is just one layer in a multi-layered defense-in-depth strategy. But I still come back to the fact that you are giving both keys to the same person.

What I would like to see is this technology implemented in a much smarter manner. For example, distributing credentials across multiple distinct trust authorities. For example, it would be a great way to overcome many of the weaknesses and distribution issues we see with SSL certificates. Having multiple holders of a secret not only better protects the secrets but upholds integrity in the case a small number of authorities are compromised. This technology could be helpful for preventing insider attacks and would be useful if you have your servers at third-party data centers that you may not completely trust. There are also some legal advantages with having databases distributed across multiple jurisdictions. And hey, if this technology prevented just one attack, in the absence of other attacks it would probably be worth the expense.

There are many other areas that could greatly benefit from threshold cryptography, but splitting credential storage within an organization is probably not one of them. The concept of a black box authentication appliance (although this is vm-based) is a great direction to be going, considering how many organizations simply don’t implement credential storage correctly, but they seem to be overselling (and overpricing) what this product really can accomplish.



Updated Thoughts on CISPA

Since I wrote my last post on CISPA a few weeks ago, a number of things have changed and my own opinion has evolved some as well. I still feel that the EFF’s interpretation was perpetuation a great amount of FUD, but that doesn’t really justify the merits of CISPA. There are many things to say about CISPA but I thought I would share some random thoughts here:

The Quayle Amendment Changed Things

While there is some debate whether this amendment is good or bad from the perspective of privacy is debatable, the question here is why was that amendment necessary? And why was the vote pushed forward right after including this amendment? In my opinion, this amendment alone is reason enough to hate this bill. I want to get that out first because although I agree with the premise of the bill, the risks of passing it as it stands are just to great. I don’t agree with the FUD involved in fighting this bill, such as saying it is the new SOPA, but I am always very wary of unintended consequences and it since it is so much harder to undo a law, this must be approached with great caution.

How Much are they Spying Already?

I’m not saying they should pass this bill because they already spy on you, I am saying that if this is a big concern we need to put more effort into laws that limit what they are already doing. Most companies already have intrusion detection and spam prevention systems in place to identify and log attacks and other unwanted threats to their networks. Much of this involves deep packet inspection and storing personal information about those who trigger alerts, including the many false alerts. There really aren’t many rules on what these companies can and cannot do with that information and their terms of service open us all up to huge intrusions of privacy. We do need legislation that clearly defines a threat and clearly defines (and limits) what can be done with that information.

And then there’s the NSA. Certainly we can’t even imagine how much information they gather on every one of us. Really, that just need stop, I don’t remember any U.S. citizens getting any say in allowing them to do that.

It appears that this law allows for better coordinated sharing of information but the fact is we are already threatened with huge invasions of our privacy. If you can be called a customer, an employee, or a citizen, you can be spied on.

Terms of Service vs Law is a Big Distinction

One very important thing to remember is that a company spying on it’s users is often covered under it’s terms of service. You agree to allow that in exchange for using their service. However, law enforcement agencies are limited by law which is much more restrictive. A law such as CISPA would allow law enforcement to fall under the umbrella of terms of service which would greatly expand their access. While this is good in the sense that it would make certain evidence legally admissible in court, the potential for unintended consequences are huge.

We Need Buffers for Stretched Interpretations

We have already seen how easily law enforcement can stretch interpretations or employ secret interpretations of laws. As a parent I see that, like children, you need to be very specific about things or law enforcement will go with the absolute most permissive interpretation. CISPA simply does not do this. Laws are difficult to reverse so we must be very careful before allowing laws that could have great potential for abuse.

Who Profits from CISPA?

Many have said that the RIAA and MPAA are clearly behind this bill but I don’t buy that. I certainly hate everything about the RIAA, MPAA, and anything they back, but I just don’t see this bill benefiting them that much without greatly stretching the interpretation and exposing themselves to significant liability. I’m not saying that is out of the question, it just doesn’t seem to fit here.

Nevertheless, whenever Congress passes any bill nowadays I am always suspicious of who stands to profit here. Yes I am sure there are some sincere motivations here but since when has a law been passed based on it’s sincerity?

Don’t Forget Who Makes the Decision, But Does it Matter?

I have seen a number of misleading articles state that CISPA would allow the Government can go trolling for information and take anything they want in the name of cybersecurity. First of all, I think law enforcement already has enough power through the Patriot Act and other laws that they can already demand just about anything. However, it is important to note that CISPA does not allow the Government to demand this information, it only allows companies to volunteer the information.

Now having said that, if the Government starts paying good money for that info, I’m sure that most companies would be happy to volunteer anything that law enforcement asks for.

Long is Bad but so is Short

One thing that always bothered me about the Patriot Act is how in just a matter of days after September 11th, the Justice Department produce such a huge, sweeping bill. In fact, whenever I see a ny100+ page bill introduced to Congress I get suspicious of how many lobbyists had their hand in this. Complexity is the best weapon that special interests have in introducing loopholes that line their pockets. Which is why seeing the short, simple CISPA was so refreshing and reassuring.

But as we have seen, being short has it’s problems too. Complexity introduces loopholes but vagueness can be just as bad. One thing nice about CISPA is that it is probably much easier to fix few pages of vagueness than to scale back a thousand pages of complexity.

There’s a Bigger Message

I think that it is important to look past the words on the bill and see what the opposition here is really about. It’s not so much about who shares what and how, it is that the American people are getting tired of never-ending legislation that continually gives the Government more power and slowly erodes at our rights of privacy. Do we really even need this bill? Yes there are some specific cases where it would be helpful, but we just don’t know how many more doors we are opening.

We are already tired of constantly hearing how law enforcement agencies are stretching and abusing current laws, do we really want to give them even more power? Will using the Internet become just as personally intrusive as the security gates at an airport? Is there greedy some special interest involved here paying off Congress to make themselves even richer?

The fight against SOPA energized many of us and demonstrated that for once the people do have a voice and we are going to use it. Despite any legitimate benefits of CISPA, Congress is voting on a law that most people just don’t want.

Now there is something to agree with.

My Password is

Password security has always been a hot issue but events in the last few years have made it an even more pressing issue to a greater number of people. When I hear receptionists in a doctor’s office sharing strategies for creating secure passwords I know this is now beyond the realm of network administrators and security professionals.

But one thing I have noticed is that many people don’t truly understand why one password can be so much stronger than another so I thought I would walk through the process of cracking a password. In this case, I decided to use as an example the very password that (until I wrote this) I use for the admin account on this blog.

So like I said in the title, my password is

That isn’t the best password I have come up with but it is still fairly strong. It is 15 characters long, contains a number, letters, and some periods. It took me just a couple logins to actually memorize that password. The word components are fast to type because we are trained to type in whole words. And there are four parts, each one ending with a period. The repetition of the period helps the memory process.

Chances are that no one would be able to go to my admin page (which itself is protected by a different password) and just guess that, no matter how much they knew about me and no matter how many of my other passwords they knew because I have never used that password anywhere else. As of writing this article, I can do a Google search for “” and there will be no results.

But the real risk isn’t someone being able to keep trying to guess my password via the admin page, the real risk is someone finding a new 0-day exploit that allows them to dump the users table in my database and get the hash of my password (which happens to be $P$9YCJ/QwbFcgbo7OtfWGYYE8sVJBxtF/). If someone can get your hash, they can now try millions of password combinations without you ever knowing it.

Cracking a password hash is a lot like trying keys in a lock. A hash is a string of characters derived from your password that is calculated in such a way that it is nearly impossible to work backwards to discover the original password so it is relatively safe to store. When you log in to a system, it will run the password you enter through this same complex formula and the result should be the same.

So when I first created my password on this blog I entered WordPress ran it through these formulas and came up with the hash $P$9YCJ/QwbFcgbo7OtfWGYYE8sVJBxtF/ which it saved it in the database. The next time I log in, I enter my password, WordPress runs the same formula on that password and it comes up with $P$9YCJ/QwbFcgbo7OtfWGYYE8sVJBxtF/ which matches the hash it has stored so it knows that I am using the correct password even though WordPress never stored my actual password. Now what is special about these formulas is that it is extremely rare that any two passwords will create the exact same hash (a concept known as collision).

So if someone is able to obtain my hash, they can’t directly get my password from that, but they can try millions or even billions of different passwords and run each one through the formula until they find one that produces that exact same hash. It is a lot like having a lock, you can’t easily create a key from it but you can try a bunch of keys until you find the one that works.

Now when it comes to passwords there are actually hundreds of trillions of possible passwords someone might choose. Even with a cluster of powerful computers it could take decades to try every possible password. Fortunately for hackers, most people aren’t that clever with their passwords. There are a number of strategies they use that can drastically reduce the number of passwords you need to test to crack a password. Below is that strategy

1. Hash Lookup

First, an attacker will check to see if someone else has cracked the password before, using either a local database or an online database such as or or one of the hundreds of other similar sites. In the past few years there have been many large sites that have been hacked and their passwords leaked. If you password was ever one of these, chances are it will appear in one of these databases. Likewise, if you select a common password that others may also be using, it also might be on this list.

In the case of WordPress, the hashes are created using PHPASS but for the sake of this example, let’s just assume they use MD5 hashes like many other systems use. The MD5 hash for my password is 7914881ba9b78fa307db6ef0db675e29. You can search any online databases for my hash and you will not find it listed anywhere (at least at the time of writing). If your password is one that you have never used before and others likely have not used, you should be safe (try googling one of your passwords, you may be surprised how many results you get).

If your password hash does not appear in one of these databases, there are also rainbow tables which are massive databases of precomputed hashes consisting of every possible password up to 8-10 characters in length, depending on the algorithm. If your password is less than eight characters long, your password surely will be cracked at this stage. However, you will not find 7914881ba9b78fa307db6ef0db675e29 in any of those databases so I am safe so far.

The lesson here is to never use a password less than ten characters long. Never use the same password on multiple systems. Don’t try to be clever with your password, that never works (NCC-1701 is a very common password).

2. The Word List

Since most passwords consist of dictionary words or something similar, checking every word in a dictionary or a specialized wordlist is a quick way to find a weak password. Most hackers will use lists of the most common passwords such as this because chances are very high that someone will be using one of those passwords. It normally doesn’t take more than a minute to go through even a gigantic list of words.

In my case, even a Google search for my password turns up nothing so even if you had the massive list of words that Google has indexed you still wouldn’t be able to crack my password.

Considering this, you can see why so many systems simply probihit any password that is a dictionary word.

3. Rules and Patterns

If a dictionary or wordlist check fails, the next step is to try some of the common (albeit innefective) tricks people use to make a password more complex. If you asked me what I thought was the most common password pattern I would say a proper noun (such as a name) followed by 2-3 numbers. So it would be smart for a hacker to take each word in a wordlist and add ever possible number from 1 through 999. If that doesn’t work, you could try reversing each word or doing simple substitutions like using the number 3 instead of the letter e. It really does not take much effort for a cracking program to try hundreds of different patterns.

For example, a dictionary word may be “password” so a rules-based attack my try PASSWORD, dRowssap, P@SSW0RD, p@ssW0rd, dr0Wss@p, passwordpassword, @ssW0rdp, dp@ssW0r, p@9sW0rd, 1p@ssW0rd, p@$$W0rd, ppp@ssW0rd, 1p@ssW0rd, and thousands of other variants of the word. Depending on the number of rules and the size of the wordlist, this step may take only five to ten minutes and will crack a great number of passwords.

If an attacker has sufficient processing power, another effective strategy is to try two dictionary words together with various delimiters between them (such as dashes or periods). If you had a wordlist of 100,000 words and tried every combination of two words that means you would have ten billion possible combinations. Trying different delimiters between the words would make it a little bit harder but not much.

You probably wouldn’t want to try three-word combinations because that would take you up to a quadillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) possible combinations which would not be an effective strategy. In the case of my password there is a number and three other words that would likely appear in a dictionary but testing for four-word combinations would mean there are 100 quintillion (100,000,000,000,000,000,000) possible passwords, so the odds are my password would still be pretty safe.

The lesson here is that a strong password is not a matter of being clever, it is a matter of beating the numbers. Passwords should always contain three or more words or other sequences.

4. Brute Force

If a password hash doesn’t show up in a database or hasn’t been cracked before, does not show up in a list of common passwords or dictionary words (even after trying hundreds of common variants), the only method left is to simply brute-force the password. This means trying every possible combination of letters until you find the password. It would be like trying to crack a simple bicycle lock, you would start with 000 and try 001, 002, 003, and so on until you got to 999.

In the case of passwords you would need to try every combination of lowercase letters, uppercase letters, numbers, and punctuation symbols. In other words, imagine a bicycle lock where each dial contains abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz ABCEDFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ0123456789`~!@#$%^&*()_-+={[}]|:;"'.?/ and there are eight or more dials. This is why so many systems require that you use a variety of characters because using different types of characters is like making each dial larger. And making your password longer is like adding more dials.



Now brute-force attacks are much smarter nowadays using techniques such as mask-based attacks. These types of attacks basically use knowledge about passwords to make the brute-force process much smarter. For example, if you look at this chart you will see that uppercase letters are very likely to show up in position 1 but are extremely rare after position 8. Knowing this, it would be more effective to not even bother looking for uppercase letters after the first few characters. Now if you look at the distribution of all character sets in this graph you can see that much can be done to optimize the brute-force process. Nevertheless, these rules become less and less effective the longer and more complex your password gets.

The big secret here is if you can force a hacker to have to use a brute-force attack and you have a password that is at least 15 characters long, chances are that you have won. Eventually computing power will catch up so that even 15 characters might be enough but the good thing is that these numbers grow exponentially so a 16-character password is almost 100 times stronger than a 15-character password and a 17-character is more than 9,000 times stronger!

So What Makes a Password Strong?

Your password must be something very unique and one that you have never used before. In fact it should be so unique that if you did a Google search for it, there would never be any results. You can’t just take a word and dress it up a bit, you need 3-4 words or other sequences to make a password strong. And finally it has to be long. It helps to throw in some numbers and pumctuation but most importantly it has to be long.

10,000 Top Passwords

[Note: this article originally had incorrect numbers which have been corrected after re-running the calculations with the original data.] 

If you came here looking for 10,000 passwords, you probably want to look at this newer article where you can find 10 million passwords. 

Back when I wrote Perfect Passwords, I generated a list of the top 500 worst (aka most common) passwords which seems to have propagated quite a bit across the internet, including being mentioned on GizomodoBoing Boing, SymantecLaughing Squid and many other sites. Since then I have collected a large number of new passwords bringing my current list to about 6.5 million unique username/password combos, including many of those that have been recently made public*.

Continue reading “10,000 Top Passwords” »

Ars Technica Says Don’t Punish the Users

I was reading this ars technica article that talks about how some are angered by LulzSec releasing a sample of their Sony passwords. They quoted one Twitter user who basically told them to not punish the users for Sony’s sake.
But here’s the problem with that argument: those one million accounts accounts have already been hacked, and at least a few people already have that information. Making the list public forces Sony and the users to take this seriously. If the list is not made public it is too easy to get lazy about it.
Hiding the passwords really doesn’t protect those users one bit whereas making this stuff public will bring a lot of attention to the matter.

10 Ways to add to my paranoia

A couple of years ago I wrote an article at about my security paranoia, which ended up in a lot of people thinking I went way too far and perhaps needed some mental help. In the article I wrote that instead of the word paranoia, I prefer meticulous precaution.

With astronomical growth in spyware and an increase in search engine poisoning, how is my meticulous precaution doing? Well, it’s just plain paranoia now.

So in addition to all the well-known best practices and the stuff I mentioned a couple years ago, here are some additional precautions I feel compelled to take:

1. I have an isolated virtual machine always open that I use just for e-mail and instant messaging. This machine is a member of my domain because I need to move stuff in and out of there so often, but firewall rules and other precautions limit its exposure. Plus I never browse the web from this machine.

2. I have another virtual machine always open for general web browsing and downloading. In this VM I have IE7, Firefox, Netscape, Opera, and Safari installed, as well as all the file downloaders, proxies, filters, and anything else cool I find. The browser security settings themselves are moderately secure, but relaxed enough for good web compatibility. This is where I do all my web 2.0 stuff.

3. I have another extremely isolated and extremely hardened virtual machine for more adventurous web browsing and other risky internet stuff. Just IE7 and Firefox here but lots of scanners, blockers, filters, and just about every security-related add-in I can find. I usually keep scripts, active content, and even images turned off in the browsers. Oh yeah and this vm isn’t even on my physical machine here, it’s at my data center and I connect to it via Terminal Services.

4. And of course I have a separate virtual machine on standby (suspended) for all my financial stuff. There are also a few other VM’s I keep on standby for other dedicated and potentially sensitive tasks. All these virtual machines means I need 4GB RAM and 3 monitors to get any work done.

5. Speaking of financial stuff, whenever I create a new financial account, I set up a new e-mail alias just for that account. In the case of PayPal, I created the account under that unique e-mail address but I added several other e-mail aliases that I can give out to people when they pay me so I never have to reveal my secret login address. When I get an e-mail from PayPal to any address but the secret one my Outlook rules will automatically discard it. And speaking of PayPal, I highly recommend spending five bucks to get a security key for your account.

6. I also use secret e-mail addresses for handling sensitive information. The fact that GMail keeps every e-mail forever is kind of scary, especially since it is a web-based app that could so easily fall prey to a cross-site scripting or similar attacks. This is especially a problem because so many web sites insist on sending you a plaintext e-mail with the account information you just barely set.

So I have an incoming mail filter on my GMail account that looks for words like “password” and “login information,” automatically forwards them on to another non-public e-mail address, and then deletes GMail’s archive copy. If you use Gmail, do a search for “password” and see what it comes up with. In case you were wondering, yes I do need a spreadsheet to keep track of all my e-mail accounts.

7. I frequently exit out of then re-open my web browsers, which are set to clear cache, history, and cookies upon exiting. I don’t want some cross-site scripting attack stealing any session cookies. And I never log out from a sensitive web site, I always exit the browser.

8. Occasionally I use the snapshots feature of VMWare to roll back the OS partition of my most sensitive machines. It’s my version of a Crazy Ivan.

9. And most importantly I back up frequently so I have no problem wiping a machine and starting from scratch if I suspect a malware infection or security breach.

10. Ok, well I’m withholding number 10 because I’m just too paranoid to tell you about it.

A bad month for CAPTCHAs

Shortly after my last post on CAPTCHAs, some of you may have noticed MustLive’s CAPTCHA bypass tests in the comments below the article. Although I moderate all comments to my blog, I allowed those through because I thought they were a good follow-up to what I myself had written about CAPTCHAs.

In reality, the only function that CAPTCHA on my blog serves is to reduce the number of spam comments I have to sift through to find the real comments. Along with a couple other plugins, it does a good job with keeping the spam out. Continue reading “A bad month for CAPTCHAs” »

Vista and XP are equally at peril to malware… wait, what?

Harry Waldron pointed out on his blog an article from the CRN Test Center that claims that XP and Vista are equally at peril when it comes to security.

There are many problems with this CRN review, the most obvious being that they appeared to be testing Vista as a virus-detection platform, which it isn’t. In Windows Vista, like every other OS, Virus scanning is not part of the OS and requires additional software. Vista does, however, warn you when you do not have any anti-virus software installed. Continue reading “Vista and XP are equally at peril to malware… wait, what?” »

Multi-Factor Authentication vs Multi-Single Factor Authentication

Sprites mods has an interesting article about hacking the protection of a hardware authentication device:

What’s interesting about this is that it shows how easy it is to feel like a hardware device is providing a second factor of authentication when in reality all it is doing is giving you single factor authentication twice. And although that still might seem more secure, it actually provides little additional benefit. Continue reading “Multi-Factor Authentication vs Multi-Single Factor Authentication” »

So Kevin Appeared in Playboy…

I got a chance to review a [uh, text only] copy of the Playboy article about Kevin Mitnick and was quite surprised with how captivated I was reading it. The author makes an excellent point in the article—not through what he says but how he makes you feel—that hacking is cool.

The article brought back some feelings that I myself haven’t felt in quite a long time. I realized that the security industry has changed me. I spend my time evaluating software, testing updates, writing how-to articles, and digging through an endless buffet of RSS feeds trying to keep up with who has acquired who. I forgot that I’m a hacker. Continue reading “So Kevin Appeared in Playboy…” »