Security Corner

December 27, 2010  3:37 PM

Use Strong, Unique Passwords! Use Strong, Unique Passwords! Use Strong, Unique Passwords!

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

There, I said it three times; did it sink in? Probably not, so I’ll say it again: Use strong, unique passwords!

In the wake of the recent Gawker Media hack, I feel it’s prudent to once again address the issue of strong, unique passwords. Sometimes I feel that I should rename this blog to “Password Corner” and devote the rest of my natural life to drumming it into people’s heads why this is important. I won’t do that, of course because I’ve figured out a long time ago that people are just too lazy to expend that little bit of extra effort to make a strong password that isn’t used anywhere else. They think it’s going to be too hard to remember or that they’ll have to carry a piece of paper around with them all the time. They would be wrong; it’s just laziness.

It is so simple to create strong, unique passwords that will thwart any but the most determined hackers. You only need a mixture of 12 characters, preferably a mixture of numbers, upper/lower case letters and punctuation to generate a strong password that for all intents and purposes is uncrackable. To make such a password easy to remember, you can use a simple pattern or algorithm known only to you.

Here are some ideas (don’t use these exact ones, for obvious reasons–this is a public blog and hackers have access to it):

  1. Use some easily-remembered numbers, some special characters and the domain name in a standard pattern. For example, say your phone number is 555-1234 and the site you want to generate a password for is You could use something like the following: 55*&Foobar&*12. See? It’s symmetrical; easy to remember the pattern, but it looks random. How about 12@(Foobar)@34? See where I’m going with this? Use the same pattern across sites, but change the middle part to be the domain of the site. You’ll have an easily-remembered password that is unique for each site.
  2. Use the domain name with altered characters and an unique added PIN or key. For example, if you have an account on, you could use something like F0oB@r.C0m-J03. Your key in this case would be “-J03.”
  3. Use the title bar of the login page with altered characters and/or a PIN or key. For example, here’s what you might use for the New York Times website: L0g-1n-N3yorkT1m3s.c0M-J03.

You can probably think of other ways to do this, something that is unique to you. For obvious reasons, you don’t want to use your name, your kid’s name, your pet’s name, etc. unless you make it strong by adding things to it.

At the very least, please, if you have online financial accounts, PayPal, credit cards, etc. make very sure that the passwords are strong and not used on any other sites. If they are, change them immediately. You can do that much for yourself, can’t you?

December 26, 2010  3:11 PM

Have You Been Gawkered?

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

A couple of weeks ago, servers at Gawker Media, Inc., who also runs the sites and were hacked by a group who calls itself Gnosis. Reportedly, more than 1.3 million user accounts, email addresses and passwords were obtained. The hacker group has managed to decrypt about half of the database contents and released it as a torrent.

You might be thinking that this is no big deal; people can just change their passwords. That’s true. The problem is that many people– against my and countless other security advisers’ advice–use the same combination of user credentials across multiple sites. The only way to mitigate the risk in this case is to change credentials at every site and never use the same password more than once.

To make matters even worse, quite a few of the accounts used ridiculously simple passwords. You can find a list of the top 250 most commonly used passwords here, but in case you’re wondering, here is a list of the top 10:

 2516 123456
 2188 password
 1205 12345678
  696 qwerty
  498 abc123
  459 12345
  441 monkey
  413 111111
  385 consumer
  376 letmein

The significance of “monkey” escapes me, but I’ve seen the other ones used many times in my role as sys admin.

Here’s what Woody Leonhard of Windows Secrets recommends:

While perusing the list is entertaining, the important lesson here is about password use. For example, let’s say you posted a comment on Lifehacker a few years ago. To post the comment, you had to give an e-mail address and password — which, at this very moment, somebody might be decrypting. Now let’s say you’re sloppy and using the same password for PayPal you used for Lifehacker. If a cyber thief has the foresight to sign on to PayPal with your e-mail address and cracked password, you can kiss your PayPal balance good-bye.

If there’s the remotest chance you’ve posted a comment on or, go immediately to Duo Security’s “Did I get Gawkered” site and enter your e-mail address. If your name’s on the list, change your passwords!

To that, I would add, “and be sure they are strong passwords.”

December 25, 2010  7:28 PM

Merry Christmas!

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

My best wishes to you and yours for a happy, safe and secure holiday season!

Thank you for being a loyal reader in 2010!

December 23, 2010  2:36 AM

I’m Giving Away Ten Copies of The Ultimate Security Toolkit

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

Last year, I put together my Geek Toolkit which turned out to be very popular with readers of my Ask the Geek blog. Now, the security portion of the Geek Toolkit has been revised to include the latest versions of popular Open Source security tools as well as links to new arrivals where applicable. I’m calling this latest revision my “Ultimate Security Toolkit” and in the spirit of the holidays, I’m giving away 10 copies between now and December 25.

The Geek Toolkit is loaded with literally hundreds of tools that have been part of my Geek arsenal for more than five six years. It would probably take you hundreds of hours to research and compile this collection on your own.

I’ve done all of that work for you. Here are just a few of the categories in the kit:

Web Servers
Useful Utilities
Spyware Killers
Security (major revision here!)
…and 13 more

Major revisions to the Security section include:

  • Addition of Forensics category for some very high-power tools
  • Latest versions of several free antivirus suites, some with 64-bit versions
  • Addtion of security gateway virtual appliance
  • New versions of Encryption tools, including 64-bit versions
  • Upgrades of secure VPN tools

The Geek Toolkit comes with lifetime updates, so you’ll always have the most current version available.

To get your free copy of the Ultimate Security Toolkit, you have to be one of the first ten people to register by sending a blank email to: If you are one of the lucky ten, you will receive a response containing the download link and pass phrase to decrypt the archive. (Be advised, the download is large, >750 MB.) [The free offer has expired. If you would like to order the Geek Toolkit, you can do so from this page.]

It’s my way of saying thank you for being a loyal Security Corner reader. I hope you will continue to follow my scribulations throughout the New Year.

December 21, 2010  8:17 PM

Anatomy of an Attack: Four must-watch videos from Sophos

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

These videos, produced by data protection firm Sophos, are very well done and give a real insight into the current state of cybersecurity. You’ll also be presented with some related resources, including a very cool “Threatsaurus,” a 120 page PDF that runs down the a-z of computer and data security threats. The videos are short and to the point, but give you a thorough understanding of the topic:

  • Fake Anti-Virus Demo
  • Stuxnet – Windows shortcut vulnerability
  • Inside the Latest Web Threats
  • Understanding the New Breed of Cybercriminals

Watch them here:

December 17, 2010  8:20 PM

Spam: This Tactic Is Just Weird

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

Lately, I’ve seen an awful lot of junk coming in with weird subject lines in an obvious attempt to fool spam filters. Here’s a recent one:

Date: Wed, 1 Dec 2010 03:34:23 -0500
Subject:  Thhis___Recessionn__is_Faar__Fromm_Oveer___-___Leaarn__Howw_tto_GGet___IIRS___

Dear [delted],



Ronald Sloan

{%RND***********^^^^^^^^     **********^^^^^^^^^^%}

This is an even goofier tactic than the one some marketers use to attempt to fool the filters (FR’EE, m0n’ey, and other silliness).

Would anyone fall for such a message? It should be obvious (if they even see it in the inbox) that it’s spam. Nevertheless, maybe a few of these will get through and if experience tells me anything, a few clueless souls will click.

December 12, 2010  3:04 PM

InfoWar: Cyber Hactivist Group Anonymous Attacks WikiLeaks’ Founder’s Swedish Prosecutors

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

The Hacktivist group, Anonymous, has targeted WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange’s Swedish prosecutors among other targets that have taken action against WikiLeaks. This is all a part of “Operation: Payback” which has now expanded into “Operation Avenge Assange.”  This poster has been being passed around the Internet:

The group’s website gives further information on what they intend to do:

  • Offer WikiLeaks an additional mirror and have it Googlebombed.
  • Create counter-propaganda, organizing attacks (DDoS) on various targets related to censorship (time, date and target will be published by that time).
  • Contact media entities, inform them that Operation:Payback has come out in support of Wikileaks, and has declared war on the entities involved in censoring there information; we will seek public support in a campaign against censorship.
  • We will find and will attack those who stand against Wikileaks and we will support WikiLeaks in everything they need.

At least one new term (at least, to me) has popped up in all of this: “voluntary botnet.” I’m going to explore this topic in a future post in more detail, but I have to assume it means joining an IRC channel voluntarily to effect DDoS attacks as a group.

December 11, 2010  3:23 PM

Walgreens Pharmacy Data Breach

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

Walgreens, the national drug store chain, reported a data breach where someone gained unauthorized access to customers’ email addresses. Since I’m a Walgreens customer, I received this message late yesterday:

Dear Valued Customer,

We recently became aware of unauthorized access to an email list of customers who receive special offers and newsletters from us. As a result, it is possible you may have received some spam email messages asking you to go to another site and enter personal data. We are sorry this has taken place and for any inconvenience to you.

We want to assure you that the only information that was obtained was your email address. Your prescription information, account and any other personally identifiable information were not at risk because such data is not contained in the email system, and no access was gained to Walgreens consumer data systems.

As a company, we absolutely believe that all customer relationships must be built on trust. That is why we believe it is important to inform you of this incident. Online security experts have reported an increase in attacks on email systems, and therefore we have voluntarily contacted the appropriate authorities and are working with them regarding this incident.

We encourage you to continue to be aware of increasingly common email scams that may use your email address to contact you and ask for personal or sensitive information. Always be cautious when opening links or attachments from unsolicited third parties. Also know that Walgreens will not send you emails asking for your credit card number, social security number or other personally identifiable information. So if ever asked for this information, you can be confident it is not from Walgreens.

If you have any questions regarding this issue, please contact us at 1-888-980-0963. We take your privacy very seriously, and we will continue to work diligently to protect your personal information.


Walgreens Customer Service Team

I am happy to report that I haven’t seen any spam that I can identify as being related to the breach.

If you are a Walgreens customer, be sure to use caution and don’t blindly assume that a message you receive from them, especially if it asks for personal information, is valid. Here are several tips from US-CERT you should put into practice for ALL of your emails:

  • Filter spam
  • Don’t trust unsolicited email
  • Treat email attachments with caution
  • Don’t click links in email messages
  • Install antivirus software and keep it up to date
  • Install a personal firewall and keep it up to date
  • Configure your email client for security

Be careful out there!

December 2, 2010  9:26 PM

Hackers Target Holiday Trending Topics on Twitter to Spread Malware

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

PandaLabs just discovered that cyber-criminals are taking advantage of trending topics on Twitter to spread malware. Using methods similar to Black Hat SEO techniques, hackers are capitalizing on holiday-themed words and phrases to direct users to malicious websites.  From their press release:

As the holiday period has begun, topics such as “Advent calendar,” “Hanukkah” or even “Grinch,” are among the most popular subjects used by hackers to entice users.

Thousands of tweets have been launched using holiday-related phrases, such as “Nobody cares about Hanukkah,” or “Shocking video of the Grinch,” along with short URLs pointing to malicious websites. To see an example of a tweet like this, please visit:

Here are some timely (and evergreen) tips on keeping your computer safe over the holidays, or any time, especially if you use social media like Twitter, Facebook and the myriad of other sites out there:

  1. Don’t click on links from non-trusted sources on any social media site or links you receive in email.
  2. Investigate shortened links using the tips I gave you in Shortened URLs Can Hide Malicious Sites.
  3. If you do click on a link and it arrives at a site you don’t recognize or asks you to download something, close your browser immediately. Do not accept any downloads you didn’t ask for.
  4. Patch your system and update your antivirus signatures.
  5. If you do download or install something and your computer starts acting strangely or launching pop-up messages and freezing up, check it with a free online scanner such as the one at
  6. Make sure you are protected with a good antivirus and anti-malware program.

November 30, 2010  11:50 PM

The Ultimate Security Toolkit Will Soon Be Live

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

Last year, I put together my Geek Toolkit which turned out to be very popular with readers of my Ask the Geek blog. This year, just in time for the holiday gift-giving season, I’m revising the security portion of the Geek Toolkit to include the latest versions of popular Open Source security tools as well as new arrivals where applicable.

The original Geek Toolkit is loaded with literally hundreds of security, system maintenance and productivity tools that have been part of my Geek arsenal for more than five six years. All of them are safe, proven, and malware-free. It would probably take you hundreds of hours to research and compile this collection on your own.

I’ve done all of that work for you. Here are just a few of the categories in the kit:

Web Servers
Useful Utilities
Spyware Killers
Security (major revision here!)
Disk Tools
Disaster Recovery Info
…and 11 more

The Geek Toolkit comes with lifetime updates, so you’ll always have the most current version available. (If you already have a copy, I will be giving you a new download link shortly, so you don’t have to do anything.)

I’m going to be giving away 10 copies of this compilation sometime between now and December 23, 2010, so stay tuned for details on how to register and the registration requirements.

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