No password is ever complex enough for today’s hackers

Once again, the world has woken up to news of another huge data breach and another reason that the current password security system for business applications and websites is flawed. This time it was 412 million reasons, this being the number of accounts and user credentials that were exposed following the breach of FriendFinder Networks. Despite this becoming such a common occurrence, so common that headlines can be saved for ‘BUSINESS NAME suffers data breach and X NUMBER of details have been hacked’, the cybersecurity world has not woken up to the real problem or implemented a solution that actually works.    

According to LeakedSource, which acquired a copy of the leaked data set of the FriendFinder Networks breach, a million of the accounts have the password “123456” and more than 100,000 have the password “password”. Despite people being continuously urged to be more diligent when it comes to password management, the issue is still being ignored and, in turn, breaches continue to happen.

Inconveniency of passwords

This is the latest in a long line of breaches that demonstrates the risks and consequences of using passwords as a means of authentication. Complex passwords are inconvenient, meaning users often avoid them in the first place or even store them or write them down elsewhere, offering more opportunity for them to be stolen. As a result, the password usability problem has worsened in recent years, so in order to maintain the stringent control necessary over the data that flows through organisation, IT leaders need to be adopting tools that address the major security issues at hand instead of continuing to operate under a system of increasing password adoption.   

It is shocking to see the number of people in the recent FriendFinder data breach that used the two most common passwords, ‘123456’ and ‘password’. Considering the number of data breaches we have seen this year alone and the millions of people that have been affected (7 per cent of the global population reportedly affected in the Yahoo hack), even though a complex password is not going to stop the issue, picking the two most common and easily guessable passwords is absurd.    

However, it doesn’t matter what the password is, IT and security experts continue to advise on the importance of changing passwords, how often the password needs to be changed, and finally what constitutes a complex password. The common occurrence in all of the above solutions is that, the password. It doesn’t matter how many times a person changes or alters their password they still remain the issue. What’s needed is a change in mind-set towards security and to completely revise the entire concept of the password.  

Mass market for stolen data

Aggravating the issue even further is the fact that passwords sell for good money, meaning criminals have plenty of incentive to steal or crack them. Society has transitioned to digital, this has created a massive market for stolen data, subsequently sending security experts scrambling to put out fires, all the while pleading with users to make their passwords more secure, and never quite truly extinguishing the flames. Complex and hard to guess passwords alone are not enough as they still present risks, as it’s easier and less expensive than ever for cyber criminals to crack them. Even a standard desktop PC can try billions of password combinations every second, and password lists and password-cracking software is widely available.   

Passwords are fundamentally flawed, not only because they are often easy to guess and are easily hackable, but they are also expensive to maintain with between 20 and 50 per cent of help desk calls being for password resets according to Gartner. This is before the expense of a data breach. TalkTalk lost 101,000 customers after its last attack in October 2015, and a reported cost of £60m for dealing with the breach, PLUS a new UK £400k fine and that’s not to mention the reputational damage. The TalkTalk example is one of many that could have been used in this year alone.   

The New EU Data Protection Regulation comes into force in 2018, data breaches could lead to fines as high as €20m or up to 4 per cent – whichever is greater, of a company’s global turnover if there is a breach. The GDPR is a heavyweight piece of legislation that will require organisations across the board to put a stricter focus on the way they handle data. In light of this, the introduction of the GDPR should act as a wake-up call for organisations to take full control of their data and revaluate security systems that are no longer suitable, which, considering the number of data breaches we keep seeing, has to mean a upheaval of the traditional system.    

Passwords, in one form or another, have existed as a means of security for millennia. And for most of their history, they’ve worked as advertised. But as with all technology, it needs a refresh and this refresh is long overdue if you compare it to the speed of which everything else in this industry changes.

More secure pastures needed

In order to overcome the issues associated with passwords, organisations should look to other more secure pastures. Stop wasting time and money changing passwords, making them more complex and then suffering the inevitable embarrassment and potential huge fines after suffering a data breach. It’s time to disrupt the traditional concept of passwords as a means of authentication. We are all unique but a password is never unique. 

What’s needed is an approach that involves no passwords at all. By way of example, combining unhackable security tokens with the latest technologies means that no passwords are ever created, stored or transmitted.   

Gideon Wilkins, VP Sales & Marketing, Secure Cloudlink Ltd
Image source: Shutterstock/scyther5