I recently appeared on Fox and Friends to discuss email hacking. Dave Briggs, a FOX & Friends Weekend co-host, lost access to his Hotmail email account when hackers were able to guess either his password or his qualifying question. (He admitted that his password was not as strong as it should have been.) The hackers locked Briggs out of his own account and spammed all of his contacts with a fraudulent email that appeared to be written by Briggs himself, claiming that he was trapped in Malaysia and requesting that someone help him by transferring money via W. Union. Only after persistently contacting Hotmail administrators was Briggs able to regain control of his own email account.
Twitter was targeted by a similar hack, which led to a data breach. It is likely that the hacker guessed the answer to a Twitter employee’s security question and reset the employee’s password. On Wednesday, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone blogged, “About a month ago, an administrative employee here at Twitter was targeted and her personal email account was hacked. From the personal account, we believe the hacker was able to gain information which allowed access to this employee’s Google Apps account which contained Docs, Calendars, and other Google Apps Twitter relies on for sharing notes, spreadsheets, ideas, financial details and more within the company.”
And of course, Sarah Palin’s Yahoo email account was hacked into last year, during the presidential campaign. The hacker explained how easy it was in Wired.
Web-based email rocks! Since you’re no longer tethered to a PC-based client, you can access your email from anywhere. And all the data saved in your email account will be safe if your PC crashes. Many web-based email providers offer gigabytes of free storage and other useful tools like documents, RSS readers, and calendars. Life in the cloud is easier and more convenient. But is it secure?
PC Pro reported on a study run by Microsoft Research and Carnegie Mellon University, which measured the reliability and security of the questions that the four most popular webmail providers use to reset account passwords. AOL, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo all rely on personal questions to authenticate users who have forgotten their passwords. The study found that the “secret questions” used by all four webmail providers were insufficiently reliable authenticators, and that the security of personal question appears much weaker than passwords themselves. Yahoo claims to have updated all their personal questions in response to this study, but AOL, Google, and Microsoft have yet to make any changed.
Once a hacker has your email address, he or she can simply go to the “forgot password” section of your email provider’s website and respond to a preselected personal question that you answered when signing up for the account. With a little research, the hacker has a good shot at finding the correct answer.
Some of the current questions could be answered using information found on a user’s social networking profile, or through a website like Ancestry.com or Genealogy.com. Some answers might be found in the user’s trash. Some questions seek opinions, rather than facts. For example, “Who is your favorite aunt?” requires an opinion in response, but if a hacker knew the names of all your aunts, he or she could enter them all one by one. Some questions would be more difficult to answer. Unfortunately, if you signed up for your web-based email account over a year ago, before these email hacks became more common, your questions may be even easier to answer.
Gmail’s current personal questions are:
- What is your frequent flyer number?
- What is your library card number?
- What was your first phone number?
- What was your first teacher’s name?
- Write my own question
Yahoo’s current personal questions are:
- What is the first name of your favorite uncle?
- Where did you meet your spouse?
- What is your oldest cousin’s name?
- What is your oldest child’s nickname?
- What is the first name of your oldest niece?
- What is the first name of your oldest nephew?
- What is the first name of your favorite aunt?
- Where did you spend your honeymoon?