Data Breach

Stronger authentication, less dependence on passwords needed to thwart wide-scale data breaches

Data BreachIt’s not the big one, but it’s close.

Yahoo confirmed long-suspected reports that a hacker had accessed millions of customer passwords. The number, however, is a bit shocking even to a reporter who’s been writing this same story for the past 10 years.

Five hundred million. For many years, I’ve prepared myself to report on a very, very large-scale data compromise that would undercut the integrity of the internet itself, and perhaps cause immediate harm to the economy.

This Yahoo news isn’t that. But it’s the closest thing to date. Yahoo disclosed on Thursday, Sept. 22, that 500 million user accounts had been compromised; data stolen by a hacker believed to be working for a nation state, the firm said.

“Yahoo believes that information associated with at least 500 million user accounts was stolen and the investigation has found no evidence that the state-sponsored actor is currently in Yahoo’s network,” the firm said. “Yahoo is working closely with law enforcement on this matter.”

The attack happened in 2014, which raises an obvious question: What took Yahoo so long to figure out the severity of the heist? Users also are entitled to know more about the state-sponsored attack, and any guesses at what its motivation might be,

Here’s what was taken:

“The account information may have included names, email addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth, hashed passwords … and, in some cases, encrypted or unencrypted security questions and answers,” Yahoo said in a statement. “The ongoing investigation suggests that stolen information did not include unprotected passwords, payment card data, or bank account information; payment card data and bank account information are not stored in the system that the investigation has found to be affected.”

Yahoo has set up an information page on the hack. When I tried it Thursday afternoon, it was inaccessible, probably overwhelmed with traffic.

The news follows reports in early August that a massive dump of Yahoo data was being sold online by someone using the same handle as a hacker who sold similar data dumps from LinkedIn and MySpace.

In a sign perhaps that the data was old, and had been in the underground for some time, the hacker—using the name Peace—said he or she was selling data on 200 million users for a mere $1,400. Yahoo did not confirm this announcement was related to that incident.

Yahoo says users should change their passwords. And in fact, stories about the Peace data sale claim offered the same advice. Yes, you should change your passwords, and passwords at any site where you may have used that Yahoo password. It’s a little like closing the barn door after the hacker’s already been inside for a while, however.

Yahoo said it will notify impacted users and has “taken steps to secure their accounts.”

“These steps include invalidating unencrypted security questions and answers so that they cannot be used to access an account and asking potentially affected users to change their passwords,” the firm said.

It then tried to easy the blow a bit by talking about the increased prevalence of hacker attacks plotted by foreign governments.

“Online intrusions and thefts by state-sponsored actors have become increasingly common across the technology industry,” it said. “Yahoo and other companies have launched programs to detect and notify users when a company strongly suspects that a state-sponsored actor has targeted an account. Since the inception of Yahoo’s program in December 2015, independent of the recent investigation, approximately 10,000 users have received such a notice.”

Change in security mind-set needed

The dramatic bad news—it’s scale alone is stunning—creates another opportunity for consumers to think more carefully about how they protect themselves.

“Every day we receive hard data that demonstrates why we all must be on high alert when it comes to internet security,” said John Peterson, vice president and general manager at Comodo Enterprise, a security firm. “From the everyday consumer to the largest enterprise, we are constantly under attack from people and organizations that want to profit from stealing our personal information. Only by changing the way we think about internet security and deploying technology that provides full end-to-end coverage, will we be able to stop cyber criminals from profiting.”

In the end, however, there is little consumers can do to protect themselves from such wide-scale attacks. It’s up to technology firms to build better security into their products in the first place.

“What happened to Yahoo and their customers is tragic, but what is more tragic will be the next several data breaches at this scale, which, unfortunately, we have every reason to expect,” said Brett McDowell, executive director of the FIDO Alliance, a consortium of tech firms like Microsoft and Google. “The frequency and severity of these data breaches is only getting worse year-over-year, and this trend will continue until our industry ends its dependency on password security and adopts unphishable strong authentication. The old excuses about strong authentication being a bad user experience are going away.”

This article originally appeared on and was written by Bob Sullivan.