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Yahoo’s latest breach: Cybercrime on a colossal scale

Surely there are very few people in the U.S., or internet-connected citizens elsewhere, who are not aware of the massive security breach suffered by Yahoo in 2013, but only recently acknowledged by the company. With nearly 1 billion Yahoo users affected, it is considered one of the most widespread hacks of all time, impacting information such as birth dates, names, hashed passwords, email addresses, phone numbers and in certain cases, security questions and answers (some encrypted).

It is the second breach announced by the tech giant in the past year—and it is clear from reports that the company itself is the one that “suffered” from this attack most, experiencing both reputational and financial damage, with possible effects on a major acquisition deal with Verizon. 

In a general sense, anyone who uses the internet on a regular basis was affected, if only by the knowledge that such a massive breach is indeed possible. To look at the possible “silver lining” to this dark cloud, perhaps this will serve as a much-needed wake-up call for all those netizens with a laissez-faire attitude about passwords and internet security in general.

Yahoo should know that it is an invaluable target for cybercrime syndicates and nation states and invest the resources to protect its data accordingly. The use of vulnerable MD5 hashes suggests that Yahoo was not paying sufficient attention to security.

Escalating public awareness

As malware and cyberattacks, and even more so, ransomware incidents, have been increasing dramatically in the last few years, there is also escalating public awareness of the importance of cybersecurity. While the effects of cybercrime simply for financial gain cannot be downplayed, there are often other, more insidious motives.

The second Yahoo breach is a hack of strategic scale, conducted with a high level of anonymity; those two factors combined could mean that this is a foreign intelligence service seeking the information solely for its signal intelligence value.

One way to test that hypothesis is to try and find out if the stolen information has been used for cybercrime; that, however, is no guarantee because leaking some information could be a deceptive tactic on the part of the attacker. The fact that it may be unconnected to the other, slightly smaller 500-million account hack in 2014 does not change this calculus; there are many intelligence services in the world that might be responsible.

Many recent high-profile cyberattacks have been attributed to nation states, as opposed to random, individual hackers. Recent statements released by the FBI and CIA indicate their willingness to attribute the widely-publicized hacking of the Democratic National Committee to Russia, for example, even suggesting a possible Russian hacking influence in the recent U.S. presidential election.

So confident are these two agencies in their information that they recommended extreme measures be taken by President Barack Obama, and he followed through, last week sending home Russian diplomats and labelling them “spies.” President-elect Donald Trump applauded Russian President Vladimir Putin for his lack of response to this expulsion, and Trump also said publicly that he has more information about the hacks, yet to be revealed. But regardless of your political stance, the clear implication is that the Yahoo breach, as well as the alleged meddling in the November election, are just further indications of how a vulnerable cybersecurity posture can impact events on a colossal scale.

National impact

And the Yahoo extreme breach is indicative of yet another lurking threat…the possibility that hackers, nation-state or otherwise, can potentially have a dangerous impact on national, even global, financial circumstances.

It is possible this type of cybercrime could be used to affect market share, when billions of dollars are at stake. We shouldn’t forget that an insider, a rival corporation, or even a nation-state might operate purely out of selfish financial considerations. All of these individual data items could be used equally well for intelligence or criminal purposes. 

The list of possible consequences goes on.

It is possible that other hacks have benefited from the Yahoo cases since users often reuse passwords between sites, and their security questions might be the same. If consumers have a Yahoo account- any Yahoo account- they should change their passwords and security questions now and keep an eye on their other accounts for any suspicious activity. End users can also consistently help protect themselves by staying on top of their own password hygiene. They should use strong passwords - a combination of uppercase, lowercase and special characters - and make them longer than they’d like them to be. They should also change them often. Overall, , such incidents will increase the pace of developing real-time biometrics for online authentication.

As we increasingly up our ante, by investing in and partaking in growing technological advances, we also increase our exposure to possible threats. Even as little as a few years ago, the possibility that we would be so incredibly intermingled with IoT devices was unthinkable. Yet now, even the most technologically unsavvy among us is likely to have several IoT devices that are used on a daily basis—all the more reason for those of us in the tech industry to assiduously inform and instruct those who are perhaps unaware of their level of vulnerability.

The Yahoo breaches should not only raise the hackles of the technologically aware, but they should also serve as a call to action, an alarm to wake us all up to the possibilities that are available for cybercriminals to take advantage of, if we are not mindful and diligent in at least basic cybersecurity precautions. Clearly, there are dramatic steps to be taken to prevent these attacks in the future. Not only do average consumers need to be aware, to take steps to protect themselves, but companies large and small need to wake up to the possibility that they are only a click away from becoming the next Yahoo, a fate that can damage a company’s reputation, at the very least. Only by changing the way we think about internet security and deploying technology that provides full end-to-end coverage, will we be able to stop cybercriminals from profiting.  

Kenneth Geers, Senior Research Scientist, COMODO
Image Credit: Gil C / Shutterstock

Kenneth Geers
Kenneth Geers (PhD, CISSP): COMODO Senior Research Scientist, NATO CCD COE Ambassador, Atlantic Council Senior Fellow, Digital Society Institute-Berlin Affiliate, TSN University of Kyiv Professor. 20 years US Government.