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Look, pal, it’s YOUR password so it’s YOUR fault that it's gone AWOL

Security begins at home... and ends up in someone else’s

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

And you all know, security is mortals' chiefest enemy

Which brings me to eBay.

I am not suggesting that an eBay employee is responsible for the recent hack, although the generic concept of insider data theft is more than a scare fantasy invented by security consultants, as Bank of America found to its ($10m) cost a few years ago.

On that note, I’m tempted to say also that businesses that routinely outsource their customer relations operations to flaky foreign call centres deserve all they get, but that’s unfortunately not the case because these businesses don’t “get” anything. It’s the customer who ends up in a world of shit. The kind of business that allows its customers’ data to be ripped off as the indirect result of yet another round of vicious cost-cutting isn’t run by people who serve customers but by cost-cutting accountants, and cost-cutting accountants couldn’t give a flying fuck.

Back to eBay, though. The consensus appears to be that a hack into a relatively small number of eBay employees’ login credentials was enough to lay open 145 million user account passwords. These passwords may or may not have been adequately hashed or encrypted; no-one outside eBay knows because eBay isn’t saying.

This is worrisome but not my immediate focus. Surely the key problem at eBay isn’t what it did or didn’t do to disguise customer records, so much as how feeble the protection must have been to prevent anyone from entering in the first place. Nick a few eBay employees’ logins and you see everything? Surely not. That would be like fitting Fort Knox with leaded windows.

Compare this to what you and I have to put up with on a daily basis. Most of the IT departments at places where I work deliberately inflict multi-login hell on their users, apparently for no practical purpose other than the sheer fun of it, like a smirking school bully. Every stupid little app and utility requires a unique username and password, and those automatic password security evaluators are getting so demanding they have become positively highly strung.

Yesterday, I was working on a database of utterly non-sensitive material that demanded I change my password... and rejected every attempt to do so for half an hour. Sure, silly alphanumeric sequences such as abcd, qwerty,1234 and 0000 are automatically disallowed but I soon discovered that so were any combinations that included what it recognised as names of streets, places, English regions and nearby restaurants. The inclusion of any proper noun, even with substituted numbers for letters, rendered an entire password invalid.

Eventually, having tried to create an adequately long password based on a line from a Shakespeare sonnet interspersed with numbers, dashes and underscores only to be informed by the system that this would be too easy to guess, I called the IT desk for assistance.

“Yeah, Shakespeare,” came the unphased reply. “It won’t let you do him either.”

But what really, really bugs me is being told to change my password again and again, not for sound security reasons but – as eBay, Adobe, SSL developers and countless others have ably demonstrated over the years – bad security reasons. Sure, I should change all my passwords regularly anyway in case someone hacks my live connection or steals my hardware. The argument that regularly changing my passwords held by a third party will keep my details more secure at that third party, however, is one that has been carefully constructed from a veritable mountain of smelly arses.

What’s the point of changing my login credentials if the third party simply keeps giving them away? No end of Shakespearean sonnets will protect me from eBay’s lead windows or a Ministry of Defence civil servant leaving his laptop in a taxi. Accidents happen just like hacks happen, but surely it would make more sense to beef up security where the passwords are stored, not whether the person thinking up a password chooses to compare thee to a rose or a summer’s day. Where’s the logic?

The logic is this: they want to put the blame on YOU.

Hackers stole 145 million passwords on our servers but actually they’re YOUR passwords so it’s YOUR fault and YOU have to sort it out. Read our T&Cs, pal. It’s up to YOU to change YOUR passwords (did we mention they’re YOURS?) and make damn sure YOU do it more frequently than WE can give them away.

Remember, your security is our top priority (snigger).

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He is guilty of bullying his own employees by forcing them to use long passwords and has endured endless requests to include individuals’ favourite words, if there is such a thing. Everyone wants to be Mr Black, eh?

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