Gawker makes a hash of non-ASCII characters in passwords

Media site becomes a byword for password FAIL

Gawker is phasing out the use of email-address-and-password login in favour of more modern OAuth authentication and the use of anonymous one-off accounts.

Tom Plunkett, CTO at Gawker Media, briefly explained the plans in responding to the discovery of another password-related security snafu involving the media news and gossip site. Computer scientists at Cambridge University discovered that, until a fortnight ago, it was failing to handle non-ASCII characters in passwords. Instead, all non-ASCII characters were mapped to the ASCII '?' prior to generating a password hash.

As a result of the cock-up, the accounts of Native Korean speakers, to quote just one example, might be opened by hackers who simply guessed a string of question marks.

Joseph Bonneau, a computer scientist at Cambridge University, came across the security hole in researching the handling of non-ASCII characters in passwords. "Gawker was using a relatively little-known Java library with the known bug of converting all non-ASCII characters to ‘?’ prior to hashing," Bonneau explained.

Bonneau credits Gawker with responding quickly to his discovery by applying a fix within three days, though the number of exposed accounts is small. Gawker's blog is only available in English and checks by Bonneau suggested fewer than one in 50,000 users elected a password which was entirely non-Latin.

The latest glitch follows a far more serious breach last month, when security slip-ups by Gawker resulted in the exposure of millions of user passwords. A database dump containing user login credentials, chat logs, and other Gawker-site collateral was released as a Torrent by hacking group Gnosis. Gnosis extracted the material after gaining root access to Gawker's servers. The attack was motivated in large part by an online feud between hackers affiliated with anarchic imageboard 4chan and Gawker.

Gawker responded to the breach by asking users to change their password, a similar response to its attitude to the much less significant non-ASCII hash snafu. Users affected by the non-ASCII bug are being prompted to change their password as soon as they login to the site with their old (vulnerable) credentials. Meanwhile, Gawker is making backend changes that will allow it to move to a more secure password system, Plunkett explained.

"Longer term (beginning early February), we will be migrating all of our users to our new commenting platform that will be described on the tech.gawker.com blog later this month," Plunkett explained. "This will eliminate the need for email addresses or passwords on our platform. Once this change goes live, new commenters will not be able to register with a user/password – we will support only OAuth or anonymous accounts we are calling 'burners'."

Gawker earlier said it was going to introduce two-factor authentication logins for its employees, in response to the compromise of the site's security last month.

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