Oops, Google Did It Again!

Like many people with a long career in IT, I have numerous small computer-related side duties I’m supposed to perform for my less skilled friends and relatives. Among those, I’m helping manage a G Suite account for a small business a friend of mine has. Needless to say, I was a bit surprised to receive an urgent e-mail alert from Google yesterday, telling me that several users in that G Suite domain were impacted by a password storage problem.

Turns out, Google has just discovered that they’ve accidentally stored some of those passwords unencrypted, in plain text. Apparently, this problem can be traced back to a bug in the G Suite admin console, which has been around since 2005 (which, if I remember correctly, predates not just the “G Suite” brand, but the whole idea of offering Google services for businesses).

Google is certainly not the first large technology vendor caught violating one of the most basic security hygiene principles – just a couple months earlier we’ve heard the same story about Facebook. I’m pretty sure they won’t be the last as well – with the ever-growing complexity of modern IT infrastructures and the abundance of legacy IAM systems and applications, how can you be sure you don’t have a similar problem somewhere?

In Google’s case, the problem wasn’t even in their primary user management and authentication frameworks – it only affected the management console where admins typically create new accounts and then distribute credentials to their users. Including the passwords in plain text. In theory, this means that a rogue account admin could have access to other users’ accounts without their knowledge, but that’s a problem that goes way beyond just e-mail…

So, what can normal users do to protect themselves from this bug? Not much, actually – according to the mail from the G Suite team, they will be forcing a password reset for every affected user as well as terminating all active user sessions starting today. Combined with fixing the vulnerability in the console, this should prevent further potential exploits. 

However, considering the number of similar incidents with other companies, this should be another compelling reason for everyone to finally activate Multi-Factor Authentication for each service that supports it, including Google. Anyone who is already using any reliable MFA authentication method – ranging from smartphone apps like Google Authenticator to FIDO2-based Google Security Keys – is automatically protected from any kind of credential abuse. Just don’t use SMS-based one-time passwords, ok? They’ve been compromised years ago and should not be considered secure anymore.

As for service providers themselves – how do you even start protecting sensitive information under your control if you do not know about all places it can be stored? Comprehensive data discovery and classification strategy should be the first step towards knowing what needs to be protected. Without it, both large companies like Google and smaller like the one that just leaked 50 million Instagram account details, will remain not just subjects of sensationalized publications in press, but constant targets for lawsuits and massive fines for compliance violations.

Remember, the rumors of password’s death are greatly exaggerated – and protecting these highly insecure but so utterly convenient bits of sensitive data is still everyone’s responsibility.


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