If a foreign government is behind the massive computer attack that compromised a half billion user accounts at Yahoo, as the company says, the breach could be part of a long-term strategy that’s aimed at gathering intelligence rather than getting rich.
Yahoo says the breach involved users’ email addresses, passwords and other information – including birthdates – but not payment card or bank account numbers. Although the stolen data could still be used in financial crimes, such as identity theft, experts say a foreign intelligence agency might combine the Yahoo files with information from other sources to build extensive dossiers on U.S. government or corporate officials in sensitive positions.
“With state-sponsored attacks, it’s not just financial information that’s of value,” said Lance Hoffman, co-director of the Cyberspace Security and Privacy Institute at George Washington University. “In the long run, if the state accumulates a lot of information on you, and especially if it corroborates that with other sources, it can assemble a pretty good profile.”
Governments have also been known to hack email accounts to keep tabs on their own citizens or dissidents. Experts believe that was one motive behind a 2010 hacking of Google Gmail accounts used by Chinese human rights activists.
Yahoo hasn’t revealed the evidence that led it to blame a “state-sponsored actor” for the latest attack, which the Sunnyvale, California, company said occurred two years ago and was discovered only in recent weeks.
Some analysts warn that “state sponsored” can be a vague term. It might also be an easy excuse to deflect blame for a company’s own security lapses, by suggesting it had no hope of defeating hackers who had all the resources of a government intelligence agency behind them, warned Gunter Ollmann, chief security officer at Vectra Networks, a San Jose, California, security firm.
Yahoo declined comment, but its top security official, Bob Lord, has said the company would make that claim only “when we have a high degree of confidence.” In a policy statement last year, Lord also said the company wouldn’t release details about why it believes attacks are state-sponsored because it doesn’t want to risk disclosing its methods of investigating breaches.
This wouldn’t be the first time that governments were implicated in high-profile hacking attacks.
U.S. officials have hinted that China might be to blame for a 2015 breach at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, in which background files and even fingerprints of millions of federal employees were stolen.
China denied any official involvement. More recently, news reports say U.S. intelligence officials have blamed Russian spies for the hack of Democratic National Committee files, although Russia’s government has also denied this.
Some security experts believe the OPM attack was carried out by the same hackers who also stole data files from large U.S. insurance and health-care companies in 2014 and 2015. It may have been part of an effort to gather sensitive or compromising information to blackmail or coerce individuals working at a variety of federal agencies.
Hackers could also use such personal information to concoct bogus emails and send them to a person’s Yahoo account, in what might be a sophisticated “phishing” scheme aimed at getting the target to click on a link containing “spyware” or other malicious computer code.
“They’d have the ability to conduct targeted phishing attacks against individuals with potentially valuable information, without going through their government email accounts,” said Tim Erlin, senior director of security and risk strategy at Tripwire, a cyber-security firm.
Similarly, governments might want to target executives at multi-national corporations, especially if they’re competing with companies based in the country that sponsored the attacks. In such cases, intelligence officials might share useful commercial secrets with their home-grown industries, said Jeremiah Grossman, an official at SentinelOne, a Silicon Valley computer security firm. He noted that the 2010 attack on Google was blamed on Chinese hackers who also targeted U.S. companies outside the tech industry.
In any event, security experts warn that the Yahoo breach could still put ordinary users at risk, particularly if the hacked information finds its way to online marketplaces where stolen data are bought and sold. Many people use the same email address and password for a variety of online services, where they might also have provided financial information such as credit card numbers.
And hackers with access to a Yahoo email account could try to reset passwords for other services, if a user registered for those accounts with a Yahoo address.
Yahoo’s announcement that state-sponsored hackers have stolen the details of at least 500 million accounts shocks both through scale — it’s the largest data breach ever — and the potential security implications for users.
An email compromise is one of the worst data breaches that a person could experience online, so here’s what you should know:
Yahoo said that the “vast majority” of the stolen account passwords were hashed with bcrypt. Hashing is a one-way cryptographic operation that transforms data into a set of random-looking characters that serves as its unique representation — this is called a hash.
Hashes are not supposed to be reversible, so they’re a good way to store passwords. You take input, such as a password, pass it through a hashing algorithm and compare it to a previously stored hash.
This provides a way to verify passwords at log-in time without actually storing them in plain text in the database. But not all hashing algorithms offer equal protection against password cracking attacks that attempt to guess which plaintext password generated a specific hash.
Unlike the ageing MD5, which is quite easy to crack if implemented without additional security measures, bcrypt is considered a much stronger algorithm. This means that in theory, the likelihood of hackers cracking “the vast majority” of Yahoo passwords is very low.
But here’s the problem: Yahoo’s wording suggests that most, but not all passwords were hashed with bcrypt. We don’t know how many passwords were hashed with another algorithm, or which one it was. The fact that this hasn’t been specified in Yahoo’s announcement or FAQ page suggests that it’s an algorithm that’s weaker than bcrypt and that the company didn’t want to give away that information to attackers.
In conclusion, there’s no way to tell if your account was among those whose passwords were hashed with bcrypt or not, so the safest option at this point is to consider your email compromised and to do as much as damage control as possible.
Once hackers break into an email account they can easily discover what other online accounts are tied to that address by searching for sign-up emails. These are the welcome messages that most websites send when users open a new account, and which users rarely delete. These days most email providers offer enough storage space that users won’t ever have to worry about deleting messages.
Aside from exposing the links between an email address and accounts on various websites, those sign-up emails can also expose the specific account names chosen by the user, if different from their email address.
If you’re among the people who don’t delete welcome emails and other automatic notifications sent by websites, such as password resets, then you might want to consider doing so and even go back to clean your mailbox of such communications.
Sure, there might be other ways for hackers to find out if you have an account on a certain website, or even a number of websites, but why make it easier for them to compile a full list?
Be careful when asked for your personal details
Among the account information that hackers stole from Yahoo were real names, telephone numbers, dates of birth and, in some cases, unencrypted security questions and answers. Some of those details are sensitive and are also used for verification by banks and possibly government agencies.
There are very few cases when a website should have your real date of birth, so be judicious about providing it.
Also, don’t provide real answers to security questions, if you can avoid it. Make something up that you can remember and use that as answer. In fact, Yahoo doesn’t even recommend using security questions anymore, so you can go into your account’s security settings and delete them.
Check your email forwarding rules regularly
Email forwarding is one of those “set it and forget it” features. The option is buried somewhere in the email account settings that you never check and if it’s turned on there’s little to no indication that it’s active.
Hackers know this. They only need to gain access to your email account once, set up a rule to receive copies of all your emails and never log back in again. This also prevents the service from sending you notifications about repeated suspicious log-ins from unrecognized devices and IP addresses.
Two-factor authentication everywhere
Turn on two-factor authentication — this is sometimes called two-step verification — for any account that supports it. This will prompt the online service to ask for a one-time-use code sent via text message or generated by a smartphone app, in addition to the regular password, when you try to access the account from a new device.
It’s an important security feature that could keep your account secure even if hackers steal your password. And Yahoo offers it, so take advantage of it.
Don’t reuse passwords; just don’t
There are many secure password management solutions available today that work across different platforms. There’s really no excuse for not having unique, complex passwords for every single account that you own. If you do want memorable passwords for a few critical accounts use passphrases instead: sentences made up of words, numbers and even punctuation marks.
Here comes phishing
Large data breaches are typically followed by email phishing attempts, as cybercriminals try to take advantage of the public interest in such incident.
These emails can masquerade as security notifications, can contain instructions to download malicious programs that are passed as security tools, can direct users to websites that ask them for additional information under the guise of “verifying” their accounts and so on.
Be on the lookout for such emails and make sure that any instructions that you decide to follow in response to a security incident came from the affected service provider or a trusted source.