Earlier this year, we told you about a password analysis we conducted on the Pony botnet, a criminally controlled server that contained roughly two million stolen account credentials belonging to the users of some of the web's most popular websites.
Our analysis revealed a somber state of affairs: Most consumers pick easy-to-guess passwords that make cracking them child's play thanks to easily available, affordable and automated tools to administer brute force and "dictionary" attacks.
But one would think that businesses, which have exponentially more sensitive information to protect than a single person, would be doing a much better job. Think again. Even though security is as heightened a business priority as ever, poor passwords are running rampant across the corporate world.
As we reported this week in our just-live Trustwave Global Security Report Online, the thousands of network penetration tests that Trustwave conducted in 2013 and part of this year gave us unique insight into the state of passwords within business environments. And the scene is not pretty, with "Password1" taking the top spot for another year in a row.
We set out to determine how easily we could crack a sample of 626,718 hashed passwords we collected during thousands of network penetration tests performed in 2013 and some performed in 2014. The majority of the sample came from Active Directory environments and included Windows LAN Manager (LM)- and NT LAN Manager (NTLM)-based passwords. We recovered more than half of the passwords within just the first few minutes. We eventually cracked 576,533 or almost 92 percent of the sample within a period of 31 days.
And that's a big deal considering nearly a third of the hundreds of data breach investigations we performed last year were aided by weak or default passwords. The news is even more troubling to franchises, which may be using similar IT deployments throughout potentially thousands of locations. There's high likelihood that the same, default password is shared across certain systems. That means if hackers are able to penetrate the systems at one location due to a shoddy password, they can infiltrate all of the others - and potentially gain a foothold on the corporate network while they're at it.
Much of the answer to this seemingly age-old predicament lies in designing strong password policies. But choosing complex passwords is not as easy as it sounds.
Many general users and some IT administrators incorrectly assume that using various uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers and special characters in a password will make it more secure. The practice would likely make it harder for a human to guess your individual password, but it does not make recovering the password any more resource-intensive for password-cracking tools. Only increasing the number of characters in the password dramatically affects the time it will take an automated tool to recover the password.
To respond, organizations must educate users and require that they select longer "passphrases" - for example, "GoodLuckGuessingThisPassword" - instead of a single word.
In addition, organizations should consider two-factor authentication for employees who access the network. This forces users to verify their identity with information other than simply their username and password, like a unique code sent to a user's mobile phone. And IT administrators can do their part to mitigate cracking success by using unique, random salts when hashing stored passwords.
Now let's get to work and make the attackers' lives more difficult.
Dan Kaplan is manager of online content at Trustwave and a former IT security reporter and editor.