Did someone just steal my password?

Large-scale security breaches are nothing new. Last December we’ve heard about the American retail chain Target’s network hack, when over 40 million credit cards and 70 million addresses have been stolen. This May, eBay announced that hackers got away with more than 145 million of their customer data. And the trend doesn’t stop: despite of all the efforts of security researchers and government institutions, data breaches occur more frequently and get bigger and more costly. The average total cost of a data breach for a company is currently estimated at $3.5 million. The public has already heard about these breaches so often that it became a bit desensitized to them. However, the latest announcement from an American company Hold Security should definitely make even the laziest people sit up and take notice.

Apparently, a gang of cybercriminals from Russia, which the company dubbed CyberVor (“cyber thief” in Russian), have managed to amass the largest known collection of stolen credentials, over 1.2 billion passwords and more than 500 million email addresses! The company hasn’t revealed a lot of details, but these were not, of course, spoils of a single breach – the gang has allegedly compromised over 420 thousand websites over the course of several years. Still, the numbers are overwhelming: the whole collection contains over 4.5 billion records. Surely, I can be somewhere in that huge list, too? What can I do to prevent hackers from stealing my precious passwords? Can someone help me with that?

In a sense, we still live in the era of the Internet Wild West. No matter how often the passwords are proclaimed dead and how hard security vendors are trying to sell their alternative, more secure authentication solutions, no matter how long government commissions are discussing stricter regulations and larger fines for data breaches - way too many companies around the world are still storing their customers’ credentials in clear text and way too many users are still using the same password “password” for all their accounts. Maybe in twenty years or so, we will be remembering these good old days of the “Internet Freedom” with romantic nostalgia, but now we have to face the harsh reality of the world where nobody is going to protect our personal information for us.

This, by the way, reminds me about another phenomenon of the Wild West era: snake oil peddlers. Unfortunately, quite a few security companies now attempt to capitalize on the data breach fear in a similar way. Instead of providing customers with the means to protect their credentials, they offer instead such services like “pay to see whether your account has been stolen”. And these services aren’t cheap.

Surely, these companies need to earn money just like everyone else, but charging people for such useless information is dubious at best. I’m not even going to mention the fact that there might be even services out there that are essentially good old phishing sites, which would collect your credentials and use them for malicious purposes.

As a famous Russian novel “The Twelve Chairs” states, mocking a common propaganda slogan of the early Soviet period: “Assistance to drowning persons is in the hands of those persons themselves.” I’ve published a blog post some time ago, outlining a list of simple rules one should follow to protect themselves from the consequences of a data breach: create long and complex passwords, do not reuse the same password for several sites, invest in a good secure password manager, look for sites that support two-factor authentication and so on. Of course, this won’t prevent future breaches from happening (apparently, nothing can), but it will help minimize the consequences: in the worst case, only one of your accounts will be compromised, not all of them.

Whenever you hear that a website you’re using has been hacked, you no longer have to wonder whether your credentials have been stolen or not, you simply assume the worst and then spend a minute to change your password and stay assured that the hackers have no use for your old credentials anymore. This way, you’re not only avoiding exposure to “CyberVors”, but also don’t let “CyberZhuliks” (cyber fraudsters) make money by selling you their useless services.



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