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Avast forum hack demonstrates we need password storage disclosure

Posted by on May 29, 2014.

A blog post early this morning by Avast Software CEO Vince Steckler announced

The AVAST forum is currently offline and will remain so for a brief period. It was hacked over this past weekend and user nicknames, user names, email addresses and hashed (one-way encrypted) passwords were compromised.
AVAST forum offline due to attack

Avast’s reaction to this hack is in stark contrast to that of eBay’s recent reaction. While eBay said very little, Avast has quickly taken down the breached forum and contacted the users with laudable speed. And it has explained the risks.

While eBay gave no details about how its passwords were stored, Avast has indicated that they were hashed but can still be cracked. Like eBay it also lost usernames and email addresses, and that information alone is valuable to phishers. Steckler has advised users to change their passwords everywhere they have been reused — good and essential advice; but users should also be on guard against phishing attempts.

But while the Avast response has been better than eBay’s, it is still not enough — users need and deserve more. Steckler wrote,

Even though the passwords were hashed, it could be possible for a sophisticated thief to derive many of the passwords.

What does this mean; and what is a ‘sophisticated thief’? The thief was sophisticated enough to breach Avast’s defences, so we can assume he or they is sophisticated enough to use a password cracker. If he can ‘derive many of the passwords’, does that imply that a weak hashing algorithm was used, or simply that the hash was not salted? If a modern method of hashing was combined with secure salting, then it would be very difficult to derive the passwords.

Users deserve to know how their passwords are protected. This can only be done before the event, because once a breach has happened, the natural inclination of all companies is to minimize any blame on themselves. While the European Union is discussing mandatory breach disclosure as part of the General Data Protection Regulation, it simply does not go far enough. All companies that store user passwords should be obliged to publicly disclose how those passwords are stored and protected.

This will not help the thief. Once he has obtained the passwords, he will rapidly discover that information for himself. It will, however, help the user. The user can decide whether to trust the company before sign up; and will know how much to worry after a breach.

More to the point, however, is that security experts will publicly deride any company without good security — and that alone will force them to do better.

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