Hacked accounts, identity theft, security breaches. Security compromise is no longer a question of “if” but a question of “when.” With companies hoarding personal information for marketing, the payload of a successful data breach becomes increasingly more valuable to follow up attacks of individuals. Identity theft leveraging stolen information is typical after a large data breach. This is even more valuable if passwords are involved and attackers are more easily able to gain access to other accounts of yours for proving your identity.

Data Breaches

The elephant in the room. These are occurring more and more with companies that aren’t security first oriented. Startups and established and trusted businesses are both at risk and often victims of data breaches. They occur so often it’s hard to keep track and are often left undiscovered for several years. What can an individual consumer do to prevent these breaches? Practically speaking… nothing. You could decide to not use these businesses, but let’s face it, that is rather inconvenient and practically impossible unless you want to completely remove yourself from the internet. Even physical devices such as card skimmers are used to steal financial information. So unless you want to deal solely in cash, hold no money in a bank, and completely relieve yourself from the internet, you are prone to data breaches.

Take Precautions

There are tools to help protect yourself! For identifying yourself as part of a data breach, you could sign up for the completely free “Have I Been Pwned” website (that’s pronounced “Have I Been Owned“) to be notified if the information you provide is involved in a data breach. They also have a password checker to determine if the password you use has been identified in a breach. These are two very useful tools for determining which data breaches you are involved in and what information of yours may be subject to compromise. I use this service for all of my email accounts and have also added this website’s domain as an added precaution. It’s completely free and Troy Hunt is very active in its development. I strongly urge you to check it out, even if just to see if your account was involved in any of their identified data breaches. Spoiler alert: it is, especially if you have an account, like me, with any of these companies:

  1. Adobe
  2. LinkedIn
  3. Dropbox
  4. Evite
  5. Last.fm
  6. Bitly
  7. Elance
  8. MyFitnessPal
  9. Verifications.io
  10. Apollo
  11. Evony
  12. Houzz
  13. NextGenUpdate
  14. ShareThis
  15. Zomato
  16. FlashFlashRevolution
  17. Neteller
  18. and another 2,844 data breaches my accounts have been involved in

Some of these don’t seem familiar to me (Verifications.io, ShareThis, Neteller, and Apollo), but upon further investigation, these are services other sites use for processing. This becomes more of a Privacy Policy fine print issue in that I never knew until a breach was published that another site used these for data processing. More interesting is that at least one breach was a Chinese company (NetEase) that I’ve never used and, through the breach disclosure, other victims have indicated the same!

Because of this data processing issue, and the fact nobody reads privacy policies (did you read mine?), a data breach of one of these services has a much larger amount of data and a much larger payoff for hackers. To combat this, you should never reuse a password, ever. If you currently have that one, easy-to-remember, password you use for all of your sites, you are not in the minority. You can also see if your password has been compromised if you search for it at Have I Been Pwned’s Password Search. It’s astonishing to me that the password “password” has been involved in  3,730,471 breach records at the time of writing this article. Over 35 gigabytes of related breach record data can be downloaded for this password alone. Password reuse is contagion for your accounts. If you use a password that has been breached, you should assume your account is breached and reset all accounts that use the password immediately. I’ve searched through my super-hard-to-guess, personal-to-me passwords and 3 of them were already breached. I then spent the better part of 2 hours changing passwords.

Password Management

These 2 hours had me wondering if there was a better way than remembering which sites I have logins for and what those logins even are. Enter LastPass. LastPass is a free password manager that handles creating and storing all of your passwords. If you’ve used your browser to remember your usernames and passwords for all your sites, LastPass does the same thing, but using secure methods. Your browser stores all of your usernames and passwords in plain text. What that means, is that anyone who has access to your computer can steal your usernames and passwords. It also means if your computer is infected with a virus or malware, that can also steal your usernames and passwords stored by your browser. Plain text password storage is equivalent to writing down your passwords on a sticky note attached to your computer. It’s highly insecure and easily stolen.

LastPass requires a single strong master password (or better yet, a passphrase!). This password encrypts your passwords and sites all in one single block of data known as a “blob.” There is no way to tell what sites you have passwords for or what the passwords are. The encrypted data is stored on LastPass‘ servers with no way of decrypting it unless you know your master password. You cannot recover your master password. Your master password cannot be stolen unless you store it insecurely yourself (in plain text on your computer, for example). You do have a hint you can use in the case you did forget your master password and there are a few options for recovery if you completely forget it (which I have on two occasions).

Getting set up on LastPass can be a bit cumbersome, but there is a password import utility that will import all of your website and password information saved within your browser into LastPass. This is a great first step in securing your online accounts. Once imported, you can disable password storing in your browser an leverage the LastPass browser extension to auto-fill, auto-save, and auto-update your passwords. When you create a new account on a website, LastPass gives you the option of creating a new randomly generated password for the site. This makes keeping strong and unique passwords for each site a breeze. I typically start at a high number of characters (~100) and reduce it if the website requires a shorter maximum password. The longer the password the more cryptographically secure it is. LastPass also provides the options to include numbers and symbols and/or to make the password human pronounceable (i.e.: a pass phrase).

Once you have all of your passwords migrated to LastPass, this tool provides a Security Challenge where it will take all of your passwords and run some tests against them. It checks to see how many are reused, how strong they are, if they have been involved in a known data breach, and if they should be changed based on their age in LastPass. The fewer the problems, the higher the Security Challenge score. Ideally, you would want 100% but that isn’t practical all the time.

Wrap Up

So, you might be a bit alarmed by all of this. You might even be overwhelmed. Security takes vigilance and persistence, but it also takes some time. If you’re sitting there using password for all of your sites and you’ve found it to be involved on thousands of breaches, don’t fret. You’ve identified that you have a password hygiene problem so now you can fix it. Head on over to LastPass or any other password manager you feel comfortable with and start cleaning up the mess. Take it one step at a time and soon you will have a strong grasp on your account security. You are not alone! Myself, I have a current Security Challenge score of 51% which is pretty garbage if you ask me, seems like I have some password hygiene to take care of!