Face Facts about Internet Security

  • Bruce Schneier
  • CNN
  • October 23, 2015

If the director of the CIA can't keep his e-mail secure, what hope do the rest of us have—for our e-mail or any of our digital information?

None, and that's why the companies that we entrust with our digital lives need to be required to secure it for us, and held accountable when they fail. It's not just a personal or business issue; it's a matter of public safety.

The details of the story are worth repeating. Someone, reportedly a teenager, hacked into CIA Director John O. Brennan's AOL account. He says he did so by posing as a Verizon employee to Verizon to get personal information about Brennan's account, as well as his bank card number and his AOL e-mail address. Then he called AOL and pretended to be Brennan. Armed with the information he got from Verizon, he convinced AOL customer service to reset his password.

The CIA director did nothing wrong. He didn't choose a lousy password. He didn't leave a copy of it lying around. He didn't even send it in e-mail to the wrong person. The security failure, according to this account, was entirely with Verizon and AOL. Yet still Brennan's e-mail was leaked to the press and posted on WikiLeaks.

This kind of attack is not new. In 2012, the Gmail and Twitter accounts of Wired writer Mat Honan were taken over by a hacker who first persuaded Amazon to give him Honan's credit card details, then used that information to hack into his Apple ID account, and finally used that information to get into his Gmail account.

For most of us, our primary email account is the "master key" to every one of our other accounts. If we click on a site's "forgot your password?" link, that site will helpfully email us a special URL that allows us to reset our password. That's how Honan's hacker got into his Twitter account, and presumably Brennan's hacker could have done the same thing to any of Brennan's accounts.

Internet email providers are trying to beef up their authentication systems. Yahoo recently announced it would do away with passwords, instead sending a one-time authentication code to the user's smartphone. Google has long had an optional two-step authentication system that involves sending a one-time code to the user via phone call or SMS.

You might think cell phone authentication would thwart these attacks. Even if a hacker persuaded your e-mail provider to change your password, he wouldn't have your phone and couldn't obtain the one-time code. But there's a way to beat this, too. Indie developer Grant Blakeman's Gmail account was hacked last year, even though he had that extra-secure two-step system turned on. The hackers persuaded his cell phone company to forward his calls to another number, one controlled by the hackers, so they were able to get the necessary one-time code. And from Google, they were able to reset his Instagram password.

Brennan was lucky. He didn't have anything classified on his AOL account. There were no personal scandals exposed in his email. Yes, his 47-page top-secret clearance form was sensitive, but not embarrassing. Honan was less lucky, and lost irreplaceable photographs of his daughter.

Neither of them should have been put through this. None of us should have to worry about this.

The problem is a system that makes this possible, and companies that don't care because they don't suffer the losses. It's a classic market failure, and government intervention is how we have to fix the problem.

It's only when the costs of insecurity exceed the costs of doing it right that companies will invest properly in our security. Companies need to be responsible for the personal information they store about us. They need to secure it better, and they need to suffer penalties if they improperly release it. This means regulatory security standards.

The government should not mandate how a company secures our data; that will move the responsibility to the government and stifle innovation. Instead, government should establish minimum standards for results, and let the market figure out how to do it most effectively. It should allow individuals whose information has been exposed to sue for damages. This is a model that has worked in all other aspects of public safety, and it needs to be applied here as well.

We have a role to play in this, too. One of the reasons security measures are so easy to bypass is that we as consumers demand they be easy to use, and easy for us to bypass if we lose or forget our passwords. We need to recognize that good security will be less convenient. Again, regulations mandating this will make it more common, and eventually more acceptable.

Information security is complicated, and hard to get right. I'm an expert in the field, and it's hard for me. It's hard for the director of the CIA. And it's hard for you. Security settings on websites are complicated and confusing. Security products are no different. As long as it's solely the user's responsibility to get right, and solely his loss if it goes wrong, we're never going to solve it.

It doesn't have to be this way. We should demand better and more usable security from the companies we do business with and whose services we use online. But because we don't have any real visibility into those companies' security, we should demand our government start regulating the security of these companies as a matter of public safety.

Categories: Computer and Information Security, Laws and Regulations

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of IBM Resilient.