Last updated at Wed, 12 Apr 2023 23:36:55 GMT

October is National Cyber Security Awareness month and Rapid7 is taking this time to celebrate security research. This year, NCSAM coincides with new legal protections for security research under the DMCA and the 30th anniversary of the CFAA - a problematic law that hinders beneficial security research. Throughout the month, we will be sharing content that enhances understanding of what independent security research is, how it benefits the digital ecosystem, and the challenges that researchers face.

This year, NCSAM is also focused on taking steps towards online safety, including how to have more secure accounts. In 2016, just like in most of the last 15 years, we learned new information about recent and not so recent data breaches at large organizations, during which sensitive account information was made public. Essentially, these breaches have unearthed data on what puts accounts at higher risk for a breach. Putting aside the concerns about non-password account information being made public, one of the factors that determines how bad a data breach is for users is the format of leaked passwords.

  • Are they plaintext?
    • Plaintext passwords are just the actual password that a user would type.
    • For example, the password "taco" is stored as "taco" and when made public, can be used by an attacker right away.
  • Have they been hashed?
    • Hashed passwords are mathematical one way transformations of the original password, meaning that it is easy to transform the password into a hash, but given a hash, it's very difficult to recover the original password.
    • For example, the password "taco" is stored as "f869ce1c8414a264bb11e14a2c8850ed" when hashed with the MD5 hash algorithm, and the attacker must recover the original password from this hash in order to use it.
  • Have they been salted and hashed?
    • Hashed passwords are good, but there are several tools and methods that can be used to try to reveal the original password.
    • There are even dictionaries that connect hashes back to their original passwords. Submitting "f869ce1c8414a264bb11e14a2c8850ed" to reveals that the word "taco" was used to generate that hash.
    • Adding a "salt" to a password, means to add extra data to it before it gets hashed.
    • For example, the password "taco" is combined with the word "salsa" before being hashed, and the resulting hash is stored as "6b8dc43f9be3051e994cafdabadc2398".
    • Now, an attacker looking up the hash "6b8dc43f9be3051e994cafdabadc2398" in a dictionary won't find anything, and will be forced to create a new dictionary which ideally is time consuming.
  • Have they been hashed with a well studied unbroken algorithm?
  • Have they been hashed multiple times? Or with a computationally expensive algorithm? Or with a memory expensive algorithm?
    • These and other questions get into the nitty gritty of how passwords can be stored scurely so that they are of little use to an attacker once they are made public.

Luckily, there are plenty of resources for security engineers to follow in order to make their sites more secure, and in particular, their storage of passwords more secure even if they are disclosed. Dropbox has an interesting post about how they store passwords, and this talk by Alec Muffet from Facebook, which describes their methods for storing passwords, is really interesting. In fact, there is an entire conference dedicated to passwords and the engineering that goes into keeping them secure. This site tracks published details about password storage polices of various sites, and this presentation provides the motivation for doing so.

That's great, but I'm not a security engineer, what do I need to know about passwords?

There is an unending list of articles, blog posts, howto guides and comics written about passwords. Passwords are going away. Passwords will eventually go away. Passwords are here to stay. Passwords are insecure. Two factor authentication will save us all. Biometrics will save us all. Whatever your opinion you probably have multiple accounts with multiple websites and ideally you're using multiple passwords. It's a good idea to recognize that whether or not the sites you use are doing a good job of protecting your passwords, you too can take steps to make your password use more secure.

If you take nothing else away from this post, remember to setup a password manager (there are many), actually use it to create different passwords for each account you have, routinely look into whether your account information has been leaked recently, and if it has, change the password associated with that account.

What's the big deal?

If you have an account with an online service, like an email provider, a social network, or an ecommerce site, then it is very likely that you have a password associated with that account. It's also likely that you have more than a few accounts, and having so many accounts you have most likely been tempted to use the same or similar usernames and passwords across accounts.

While there are clear benefits (among some privacy / tracking drawbacks) to having a consistent identity across services (,,, there are clear drawbacks to using the same password across services, mainly that if one of these services is attacked and account information is leaked, your accounts with identical or similar usernames at the other services could be vulnerable to misuse by an attacker.

Ok, but who cares? It's just my (hotmail | twitter | ebay | farmersonly) account.

You should care, these accounts paint a very detailed picture of who you are and what you do. For instance, you email has a record of emails you have sent and of those sent to you, and from that an attacker can learn a surprising amount about you. With email providers that offer effectively unlimited email storage and provide little incentive for users to erase emails, it's nearly impossible for a user to be sure that nothing useful to an attacker is buried somewhere inside.

Furthermore, your email (and social media accounts) are effectively an extension of you. When an attacker has control of your account, emails, tweets, snaps sent from your account are accepted as coming from you, and attackers can take advantage of those assumptions and the trust that you've built up with you contacts.

For example, consider the Stranded Traveler Scam in which an attacker sends a message to one or more of your contacts claiming to be in a bad situation somewhere far away, and if they could just wire some money, things would surely work out. There are news reports about these types of scams all the time (2011, 2011, 2012. 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016) Because the email has come from your account and bears your name, your relatives, friends and coworkers are more likely to believe it is actually you writing the message than a scammer. Similar attacks involve sending malware in attachments and requesting wire transfers for family members or executives, or requesting w-2 forms for employees. None of these attacks require that takeover of your account, but are certainly strengthened by it.

Really, how often does this happen? Can't I just deal with it when I hear about it on the news?

You could do that, and it would be better than not doing anything at all, but breaches that leak account information happen surprisingly frequently and they don't always make the news that you read. Sometimes, we don't learn about them for weeks or years after they happen, meaning that passwords you used a long time ago may have been known to attackers for a while before you were made aware of a breach.

Is my password really out there?

Sometimes. Maybe. It's hard to say. Often, sites will hash passwords before they are stored. However, different sites use different hash methods which have different security characteristics, and some methods previously believed to be secure are no longer considered so.

Shouldn't these sites be more secure?

That would be nice, but data security is a difficult and quickly changing field and not every site prioritizes security as highly as you might like.

Fine, what should I do?

You should to a few things:

  1. Use a password manager
  2. Use a different password for every account you have
    • Now that you have a password manager storing all your passwords, there's no need to reuse passwords
  3. Use complex passwords
    • Most password managers can create long random strings of letters, numbers and symbols for you. Since the password manager stores these passwords and you don't have to remember them, there's no need to use simple or short passwords.
  4. Keep an eye on sites that catalog leaked account information.
    • Have a look from time to time at sites that keep track of leaked accounts to see if your account has been leaked. is usually kept up to date and is easy to use.