Feeds

Password reset questions dead easy to guess

Your pet's name is Poochie? You're pwned

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

Guessing the answer to common password reset questions is far easier than previously thought, according to a new study by computer science researchers.

In the paper What's in a Name? Evaluating Statistical Attacks on Personal Knowledge Questions (pdf), Joseph Bonneau of the University of Cambridge and two colleagues from the University of Edinburgh show how hackers stand a one in 80 chance of guessing common security questions such as someone's mother's maiden name or their first school within three attempts.

The academics reached their conclusion after analysing 270 million first and last names pairs extracted from Facebook. Online research about a subject or a pre-existing relationship makes the chances of figuring out the answer to password reset questions still easier.

Sarah Palin's Yahoo! webmail account was famously hacked during the 2008 presidential election using publicly available information to determine the answers to webmail password reset questions. The research led by Bonneau shows that even a brute force dictionary attack with no prior knowledge or background research stands an unacceptably high chance of success.

Bonneau, whose research currently focuses on security and privacy in social networks, said that online services need to move away from password reset questions towards more secure approaches, such as setting multiple questions. The issue is important because access to webmail accounts provides a gateway to other even more sensitive information, such as a possible mechanism to break into online banking accounts.

"Asking what was the name of someone's first grade teacher seems like a secure choice," Bonneau told the BBC. "The problem is that there's a tonne of teachers out there named Mrs Smith."

Sending reset passwords via text messages to a mobile phone already associated with an account represents another step towards improved security. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

More from The Register

next story
FYI: OS X Yosemite's Spotlight tells Apple EVERYTHING you're looking for
It's on by default – didn't you read the small print?
Russian hackers exploit 'Sandworm' bug 'to spy on NATO, EU PCs'
Fix imminent from Microsoft for Vista, Server 2008, other stuff
Edward who? GCHQ boss dodges Snowden topic during last speech
UK spies would rather 'walk' than do 'mass surveillance'
Microsoft pulls another dodgy patch
Redmond makes a hash of hashing add-on
NOT OK GOOGLE: Android images can conceal code
It's been fixed, but hordes won't have applied the upgrade
Apple grapple: Congress kills FBI's Cupertino crypto kybosh plan
Encryption would lead us all into a 'dark place', claim G-Men
'LulzSec leader Aush0k' found to be naughty boy not worthy of jail
15 months home detention leaves egg on feds' faces as they grab for more power
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
Three 1TB solid state scorchers up for grabs
Big SSDs can be expensive but think big and think free because you could be the lucky winner of one of three 1TB Samsung SSD 840 EVO drives that we’re giving away worth over £300 apiece.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.