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
Something for the Weekend, Sir? Dear Mr Dabbs. Thank you for your business. Please see invoice enclosed.
This doesn’t bode well: I am not the sort of person who is able to make private purchases on account. As much as I’d love to swan into a shop, point at various things and drawl “Send them over, will you, darlings?” as I saunter off into a waiting limo, retailers don’t seem to like me doing it.
Rather, they eye me warily as soon as I enter their premises. Their fingers move instinctively to the panic button under the counter and the store detective trails me everywhere with the enthusiasm of an Apache scout and the subtlety of a nightclub bouncer. If I fail to bring anything to the counter within two minutes, a whispered phone call is made, other customers move silently to the exits and I find myself stranded on the shop floor as the noise of barking dogs and an approaching helicopter grows ever louder.
Steady on, security person. I am just browsing...
I do not enjoy shopping. Going shopping is shit.
So it is with a little surprise that I am reading a letter containing a bill for half a dozen iPhones. Apparently I walked into a high street mobile phone shop a few weeks ago, bought the handsets on account and walked off with the lot under my arm. And now the invoice has turned up.
One call to customer services sorts it out without argument, as it always does. I have to put up with one of these scams every 18 months or so, and I’m getting used to the routine. The first time it happened, however, I was baffled how the scammer managed to associate his naughtiness with my name and address. According to customer services, he must have been in possession of hacked identity documents.
Showing ID, as anyone working in retail security will tell you, is irrelevant. Proof of identity and proof of payment are not the same thing at all. It is not possible to stride into a mobile phone shop, demand half a dozen iPhones and shuffle off without paying, even if I show a driving licence with a photo of the Queen on it.
No, all that has happened is that a disgruntled or dodgy employee at the mobile phone shop or one of his mates has walked away with armfuls of handsets, leaving a misleading trail of customer names randomly nabbed from the database to throw the scent before scarpering. It could be the shop assistant, the work experience kid, the delivery man, anyone.
Basically, it’s all too tempting. The goods and the customer database are just sitting there, pleading to be raided. Just borrow the key to each – or easier still, nick them – and you’re away.
The scam may not even be that smart. Every time I take out a phone contract with a new provider, I am handed a cheap ballpoint pen and ordered to complete a complicated paper form while the shop assistant toddles off to photocopy my passport and electricity bill. Who needs to hack into a database of customer addresses when the original paper versions are already kicking about the shop in various unmonitored filing cabinets and in-trays? Forget name and password, these sheets of triplicate contain my bank and credit card details, inside leg measurement and DNA samples.
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 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?