What the Gawker hack should teach us about passwords

The Gawker hack exposed tens of thousands of passwords, providing an opportunity to examine real-world password security

Unless you've been leading a Luddite existence -- off camping in the Rockies or something -- you are probably aware that Gawker was the victim of an attack which exposed passwords and led to a deluge of Twitter spam. The silver lining of this incident is that it gives us yet another opportunity to examine real-world passwords and hopefully learn a lesson or two...but don't hold your breath.

Thanks to some analysis from the Wall Street Journal, we now know that the most popular password among the exposed Gawker passwords is the perpetually popular "123456". Yes, seriously. Other popular choices include "password", "passw0rd", and "qwerty". Nobody would ever guess or crack those enigmatic secrets.

You might expect this to be a wakeup call -- a clarion sounding from the rooftops that alerts people to the weaknesses of poor passwords and causes everyone to change their ways and adopt better password practices. If you do expect that, though, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

If this whole incident seems a tad déjà vu, it's because it is. In fact, it was less than a year ago that a breach of RockYou.com exposed more than 30 million passwords and provided a similar opportunity to analyze real-world password choices. The most-used password in the RockYou.com incident? You guessed it: "123456".

Granted, being able to comment on a Gizmodo post is not exactly on par with accessing a bank account, or even an e-mail account. But, even for seemingly innocuous accounts, there is reason to put forth at least some effort to create a secure password. As evidenced by the subsequent barrage of Twitter spam, a large percentage of the Gawker users also have Twitter accounts, and use the same password for both.

I am obligated to repeat the password security best practices mantra.

1. Don't use personal information like your own name, birth date, or favorite sports team.

2. Don't use any keyboard sequence such as "123456", "qwerty", or "asdfgh".

3. Don't use any word that can actually be found in a dictionary.

4. Don't try to be tricky and use a dictionary word with an obvious character substitution -- like "passw0rd" instead of "password". That just means it will take 47 seconds to guess or crack your password instead of five.

5. Do use mixed character types including upper and lower case letters, numbers, and special character like exclamation points and asterisks.

6. Do use passphrases that make it easier for you to remember complex passwords. Instead of "password", you could use "It is a pain in the ass to come up with secure passwords" but turn it into a passphrase following rule #5. Take the first letter from each word and mix it up to get "iiapit@2cuwSP".

It is not Gawker's job to make life difficult and enforce strict password policies. But, organizations like Gawker could do members a favor, and help minimize these poor password practices by requiring more complex passwords.

I'd like to think that people -- especially those directly impacted by the Gawker hack -- will learn from this experience and adopt better password security practices. But, history illustrates that it is unlikely. Odds are fair that some other major breach will occur and expose thousands or millions of passwords, and we will have this exact same conversation next year.

Sigh.

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Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)
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