Is the potential catalyst for change to end hacks already here?

Another day, another serious data breach. Yahoo’s latest security breach where hackers stole personal details from a billion users has the potential to become the biggest attack in history – and is yet another blow for the Internet firm that has been struggling on several fronts for some time now.

It was only in September that Yahoo disclosed that the company had lost access control for over 500 million accounts, so this latest attack is double the number of accounts involved and has become one of the largest hacks ever discovered. To make matters worse, reports suggest that the attack happened as far back as August 2013 and yet users are only being informed now to change their password. By my calculation, that’s more than three years that the attackers have had to exploit the information. 

So the question is whether this event will finally be the catalyst not only for Yahoo, but also every other organisation that maintains customer accounts, to force much-needed change in our continued reliance on passwords alone to secure our online accounts?

To be fair, Yahoo has been encouraging its account holders to use an alternative factor to the password with what they call the ‘Yahoo Account key’, but this could be seen as ‘closing the barn door after the horse has bolted’. 

While the Yahoo breach is an astonishing story in itself, especially given it is not the first time and the number of users involved, we could argue that it is more about how businesses with many millions of customers handle the incident and the impact that can have on the company itself and its reputation. The stakes for adequately securing access to corporate resources and personal customer details, as well as the way businesses respond to incidents like this, have never been higher.

Doing business with breached companies

Earlier this year, we surveyed thousands of consumers and found that two-thirds are likely to stop doing business with an organisation that has been breached. This is akin to customers walking straight out of your shop or business and going to the competitor next door. Businesses cannot and should not wait until they are breached to offer more secure access control – and by more, we mean not just a username and password. These are simply not fit for purpose any more. Any company unable to do this should be viewed with suspicion and their judgment and trustworthiness called into question!

So what about the users themselves? Despite the increasing number of high profile data breaches, it appears that some of us still adopt poor password habits and fail to take adequate precautions to protect our personal information. The same survey revealed that a third of consumers in the UK only change their password once a year, less or never – shocking in itself. 

But it’s also clear that many then opt to use phrases or words that are easy to remember, but unfortunately also easy for hackers to crack. Once again it’s the old conundrum of convenience over security – people want speed to access and not multiple tie-consuming layers of security to contend with just to purchase something online – and many never learn until they become a victim themselves.

Good password hygiene, as we’ve said many times, is fundamental to operating online and should remain central to an organisation’s central security policy. But more must be done to educate users and making them aware that usernames and passwords are an easy entry point for hackers to gain entry to a business.

More organisations are tuning to multi-factor authentication (MFA) to provide better safeguards in today’s increasingly complex online world. MFA helps alleviate password risk by requiring additional authentication factors, such as a PIN, a security question or a one-time security code. It’s the combination of something you have and something you know.

Back to the Yahoo beach and the long-term impact it could have on the business and ultimately the company’s future.

Leading the charge

Whether customers decide to stay with Yahoo or decide to make the switch to another provider, the advice is the same. Fasten your ‘cyber safety belt’ by turning on multi-factor authentication. After all, over the last few decades, most of us have come to accept that seat belts are an essential safety measure. The ‘Clunk Click’ education campaigns of yesteryear have been highly effective. Perhaps this latest large-scale security event will serve to raise awareness about the inadequacy of the common password and to introduce the concept of the ‘cyber safety belt’ — two-factor authentication. 

Yahoo is simply not safe to use unless you turn on Yahoo Account Key or another multi-factor authentication solution. In fact, Yahoo might be better served if they only accepted Account Key or another MFA and stopped allowing passwords by themselves. 

As 2016 draws to a close on a challenging year in many ways, but especially in cybersecurity, perhaps we should be calling on visionary and forward-thinking companies to stop accepting passwords on their own to applications and accounts. Instead, they should be providing the kind of protection that both organisations and its users need in today’s increasingly complex and vulnerable security environment – to help mitigate password risk and force the issue of requiring additional factors of authentication. 

Yahoo could bow to the pressure of becoming the victim of multiple attacks, or it could rise to the challenge and take this opportunity to position itself as a leader in security. Like Apple getting rid of Ethernet and other out-of-date ports on its hardware. Yahoo should accept the responsibility, respond accordingly, communicate the fix and then go on to be a leader in catalysing positive change across the industry.

Yahoo needs to lead the charge across the industry. Compromised enterprises face huge barriers to rebuilding customer trust and brand reputation. And for Yahoo, this may be an insurmountable task.

Corey Williams, Senior Director Products and Marketing, Centrify
Image source: Shutterstock/Ai825