Cyber Insecurity: Ashley Madison Encrypted Passwords Cracked
October 9, 2015
By now most people know that the extra-marital affairs website, Ashley Madison, was hacked, and its data posted to the Internet.
This included the passwords to all accounts. However, the site had secured them using a hashing algorithm so slow and mathematically demanding that even those with the most sophisticated computers did not bother trying to crack them. One security expert who did try could only crack .0668% of the passwords, and those only because they were weak.
Surprisingly, a group of amateurs recently announced that they had cracked over 11 million of these passwords. Anticipating 15 million shortly, this represents about 41.7% of all the passwords. The key to their success wasn’t a supercomputer, or the soon-to-be quantum computer, but rather a security flaw making these particular 15 million passwords, in the estimate of one cracker, about one million times faster to crack.
The crackers exploited one of two flaws because an MD5 hashing method, considered weak by most experts, secured the passwords. Unlike the rest of the passwords, which a better but slower hashing secured, these used the faster but more vulnerable MD5 method. Cracking these is the cyber equivalent of getting Al Capone on tax evasion and not murder or racketeering.
It seems that Ashely Madison was generally aware of this flaw because it could have rehashed the unsecured passwords but didn’t. One of the team cracking the passwords told Ars Technica, “We can only guess at the reason the [hash] value was not regenerated for all accounts. [Perhaps], the company did not want to take the chance of slowing down their site while the [hash] value was updated for all 36+ million accounts.”
The cracking of these passwords demonstrates two important points. As always, it is necessary to have at least a moderately strong password. Even the best security algorithms cannot truly protect weak passwords. Also, even if the currently used encryption method is highly secure, artifacts or other parts of a system with less security can still be compromised. Further, there is a real danger of a snowball effect. That is, once crackers expose the weak parts of an encryption, they can use the information gained from those cracks to compromise better encryption elsewhere.
In a situation like this, where Ashley Madison engineers seemed aware of the problem but chose not to correct it for efficiency purposes, the aggrieved users of the site could assert claims of gross negligence in a class action setting. The facts and circumstances of this incident make that unlikely. However, were the site more innocuous, that threat would be real.
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Additional information and resources:
Cyber Security And Data Protection Group