Security Corner

Aug 14 2009   7:18PM GMT

Gmail Vulnerability Points Up the Need for Strong Password Policy

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

There’s a vulnerability affecting Gmail accounts that was recently announced by security researcher Vincente Aguilera Diaz. You can read the posting on the Full Disclosure security list which contains complete details on how a Gmail authentication attack is accomplished and how it can be automated.

Basically, if you have a Gmail account, you are permitted to guess another Gmail user’s password 100 times every two hours. That’s 1200 guesses per day. If a hacker controls 100 Gmail accounts (easy enough to do, since they’re free, and they probably have many more than this), that’s 120,000 guesses per day. Google has no intention of changing the 100 guesses/2 hrs. limit, saying it’s robust enough. Considering that the Conficker worm’s password table needed only 200 entries to compromise many systems, it’s conceivable that many Gmail accounts could be compromised easily within slightly more than 2 hours.

Gmail does require a password of 8 characters or more, but it does no further parsing, so extremely weak passwords such as aaaaaaaa,  12345678 and the like, are allowed as are dictionary words of sufficient length. What this means is that it’s up to you, the Gmail account holder, to protect your own account; Google isn’t going to enforce strong passwords (other than a length requirement) on the general public any time soon. So, it’s important that you have your own strong password policy.

Eight characters is sufficient length (though I consider it an absolute minimum) to create a very strong password using random upper- and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols. The trouble with those things is that they’re hard to remember. Better to come up with a phrase you can easily remember and use it as your password hint. Then, figure out a standard pattern you can apply to the hint to come up with a strong password. For example, choose the phrase My address is 555 Main St. Now, reverse the order of words and eliminate the spaces: St.Main555isaddressMy; eliminate all repeating letters and numbers: St.Main5drey; finally, make sure every other letter is shifted: St.MaIn5DrEy. That’s a very strong password.

If you want to play around with different scenarios to come up with your own strong password policy, test your passwords with The Password Meter. It’s a pretty cool app.

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