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I got a panicked phone call from a client a few weeks ago.
Mitch, we fired one of our sales people last month, and we just discovered that she stole all of our client information, and covered their tracks by completely wiping their Outlook clean. We need that information back. Is there anything we can do?
Firstly, I have told you over and over again… when you are planning on letting an employee go, do so with some planning. Collaborate with your IT department and HR, so that when they are called into your office for that uncomfortable conversation, all of their passwords are changed.
(And no, it won’t do to change all of their passwords and wait for them to come to ask why…)
You may be letting the employee go for any reason, but all that employee knows is that they no longer have a job, and they have to find ways to protect their future. While it is illegal and dishonest, some of them may think that taking your corporate secrets – client files, leads, whatever – is an investment that is rightly theirs. After all, they helped bring in those clients, right? Wrong… They were paid for what they did.
The days when you could simply fire someone and have them escorted out of the office and be done with it are over; most employees (and former employees, if you allow it!) can access their data – your data – from anywhere, and are probably carrying a smart phone in their pocket so they can do it while they are waiting for the elevator.
Of course, there are ways to protect your data so they cannot easily steal or destroy it, but why take the chance? Disable their accounts before they have the opportunity to be tempted.
The answer, by the way, is yes… I was able to recover all of the deleted Outlook Data by going into the Exchange Administration of their Office 365 account. It cost them a few hundred dollars for my time, and it was a good lesson learned. However what I cannot get back for them – and no technical expert can – is the proprietary that the dismissed employee took and used to secure their next job with the competition. That will require attorneys, and you can only hope that in your jurisdiction the law favours the employer and not the dismissed employee.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how I started using a password vault. Some of my keener observers noted that I did not mention which one I chose, and that was not an oversight. I am not an expert in the technology, and unlike many of the products and solutions I have reviewed over the years, usability is not the primary factor in selecting a password vault, and I am not qualified to evaluate how well any of them secure your passwords. However with regard to usability, I would like to talk about some changes I have made in how I work, and how it has affected me.
1) Completely Randomized Passwords
Over the course of my time in IT I have heard myriad complaints from users who did not like having to remember complex passwords, and liked even less having to change them every so often. I gave them a lot of advice of how to choose and remember and cycle their passwords, but no matter how hard I tried, yellow sticky-notes (yes they come in other colours too) remain the biggest enemy of IT security.
I have used a lot of different passwords over the past fifteen years, but it is rare that I forget one. Why? Because there are probably a dozen ‘series’ of passwords that I have used at any given point. I won’t give any of them away (there is probably some obscure site that I have not logged into in a decade that still has my account with one of these old passwords, and somebody would figure it out). But let’s make up an obscure and completely fictitious password that I could have used:
Four Score and Seven Years Ago, Our Fathers…
The opening words of the Gettysburg Address. It is easy enough to remember… nine words. If I were to take the first letter of each word, and change numbers and booleans into their characters, we would have 4S&7yaof. Upper case, lower case, numbers, and characters. More than eight characters. I just created a password that would pass almost every minimum password requirements algorithms. I would then use that as a password for a dozen sites and applications. Of course, some algorithms insist on starting with a letter, so Fs&7yaof would be similar but completely different. We’re happy.
As I have mentioned before, I maintain a text file of most of the sites I have credentials for, and every few months I go through them all and change my passwords. It takes time and effort, but I have done it. Fortunately, I have always had pretty simple passwords (for me) to remember… because I knew the context. Password Hint? GETTYSBURG.
Now that I am using the password vault, it has a tool that helps me to create long, complex, random passwords that would be completely impossible for someone like me to memorize. However I wouldn’t have to memorize them, because the vault app enters it for me when I need it. So:
Hello1 = BAD
Passw0rd = BAD
Fs&7yaof = Good
L9Gya$(aWPl47+~R2t7*^1> = EXCELLENT!
With passwords like these (and a management app that helps me create, remember, and every few months change them), combined with the fact that every site has a completely different nearly impossible to remember password, and I can sleep better at night knowing that my identity is secure.
The problem is: how am I securing the password vault? Well, that has a couple of answers. Two factor authentication for sure, but that would be different on my phone and on my computer.
2) Multi-Factor Authentication
When I am accessing the vault on my computer, I have to enter my password, and then two-factor authenticate using my Yubikey. On my iPhone I have to a) log on to the phone using either password or a fingerprint, b) log in to the application using a different password. It is not ideal, but it is better than nothing… and for my needs, it is just fine.
There are some sites that I use (such as WordPress for my blog) that interacts with applications, and supports Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA). The process for these sites is a bit different:
1) The password vault application (or WordPress) generates a ridiculously long and complex password, and stores it in the vault.
2) The site allows me to create ‘application passwords’ which are for individual applications (and different installations of the same application), which the applications can store.
3) The WordPress app is installed on my phone. When I try to authenticate using either the web or an application, WordPress sends a code to the app on my phone, which asks me if I tried to log on (and from where). I can either Accept, which will allow the logon to proceed, or Reject, which will block the logon.
Other sites, such as Microsoft ID protected sites, allow me to either remember my password, have my password vault application enter the un-rememberable password for me, or it will generate a one-time code which it will send to my phone by SMS message, and I can log on with that code.
A few sites and applications, which include my corporate VPN and my health insurance website (not to mention my password vault application), allow me to authenticate using a token, a device that I plug into my computer and then press a button. The device then sends a code to the computer, and authenticates. I will not go into the back-end of this, but it is quite secure from what I understand… as long as it doesn’t get stolen. Of course, for most of the sites that I use it for the Yubikey only works when used in conjunction with a password.
I hope by now I am beyond the ‘forgetting my cell phone’ syndrome… after all, I have been carrying one for the better part of two decades, and knowing that the replacement value of my phone is nearly $1,000 I do my best to have it on me at all times. But what about the Yubikey? I am relatively new to carrying it around, an it is absolutely tiny… about the size of my thumbnail. I have it attached to a little charm that I was given at a bar in Shinagawa (Tokyo). The two combined might weigh a few grams… and I am extremely hopeful that it is more durable than it looks. However here’s the thing… I carry a lot of things in my pockets, and because of that I will, on occasion, take things out that do not have to be there… including on the weekends my card access key for the office, and yes – my Yubikey. Only, there are days (and not a few of them) when I forget my key card at home… and as such, I will often also forget my Yubikey. Fortunately my company still has a secondary VPN that I can use, and as for other sites that require it… well, let’s just say that most of them are not required for me to perform my job.
Oh wait… my password vault requires it. So I had better hope that during the course of my day without my Yubikey I don’t need to access too many sites, because while I can get the passwords off my phone, typing in passwords that look like this: L9Gya$(aWPl47+~R2t7*^1> can be a pain.
4) When all else fails…
I actually had to do this more often when I was using my old password methodology than my new one. Most sites have those helpful ‘Forgot my password’ buttons that will, after asking you a couple of questions, send you a link to reset your password. I used it a lot before, but admit that the only time I used it recently was with my health insurance company… where the password hint was useless, and the ‘Forgot my password’ button told me to call so that they could delete my account and then I could recreate it. Thanks, I’ll wait until I pick my Yubikey up off the night stand.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I was hoping the transition to the password vault (and scores of completely different and un-rememberable passwords) would not be too painful. I was not disappointed. I did have to log on to some sites and manually change the passwords, but for others the vault’s app did it for me. I haven’t been locked out of anywhere (YET), and to the best of my knowledge nobody has logged on anywhere as me because they have compromised my data.
The Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) is great as long as I have my devices with me… and my phone’s battery isn’t dead. Fortunately some of the sites that use it have alternate methods (e-mail me a code?) but also fortunately my phone is usually pretty charged, else I bring a portable charger with me.
Does this new methodology benefit me? Let’s be honest… the world has changed. Twenty years ago I was afraid someone would steal my house keys and would then break into my house and steal my stuff. Today with alarms and cameras that threat is nearly obsolete, but the threat of losing our data and banking information and credibility to hackers is very real, and being able to take steps to prevent it… well, it’s a small price to pay.
Last week without paying attention I scheduled this article to publish Monday morning, not realizing that in North America we would be celebrating Labour Day. Almost none of my readers were in the office, and many (including myself) were relaxing by a beach somewhere. As I expect the article was largely overlooked in lieu of late mornings and lazy afternoons, I decided to re-schedule it for this slot. Enjoy the article! -MDG
You have a job that gives you a computer. Maybe it’s even a laptop that they let you take home with you. It is probably better than the old computer that you’ve been using… and maybe there isn’t even a policy at work about using your corporate computer for reasonable personal use. Cool, right? You can let your old computer at home gather dust and use the company’s computer for everything.
This is a really bad idea.
If you work for a company like any of the ones that I have managed then you have worked with some pretty scrupulous (i.e.: HONEST) IT Professionals. However like every other profession, there are a lot of bad apples out there. Here is a scenario that I hope will haunt you… or at least scare you into segregating your personal computer tasks from your corporate laptop.
In my last article (Passwords: Beware) I wrote about some of the dangers of passwords, and especially of using catch-all passwords… in other words, the same password for many sites. Here’s how an unscrupulous IT admin can make all of that irrelevant.
You get your shiny new laptop from work. You use it for business… but you also use it to pay your bills, do on-line banking, connect to Facebook, and any of a thousand other tasks you do during the course of a normal week.
‘Don’t worry… your computer is secured with an Active Directory password which we forced you to make complex, and we cannot see your password or log in as you. Of course, we could change your password… but you would know that pretty quickly the next time you tried to log on to your system and your password didn’t work.’
In most cases this statement is true… and let’s assume for the time being that it is absolute (whether it is or not).
Times are tough all over, and you have not been selling as well as you were expected to. You are dreading that call into the boss’ office, but as you are preparing to leave the office on Friday you get the call. ‘Please come see me for a minute.’ You lock your computer (as you have always been taught), and walk over to his office.
Of course, s/he might tell you to finish out the month, but usually this conversation officially ends your employ. You go back to your desk to clear out your personal belongings, but if you do try to log in to your computer you will discover that your account has been locked out.
What happens next?
An honest IT Admin will back up your data, then wipe your profile and prepare the computer to be given to your replacement.
A dishonest IT Admin will change your password to something that he or she knows. He will log on as you (and remember, he doesn’t have to sit at your old desk out in the open to do this – he can do it quietly from the comfort of his cubicle). He will install a password recovery software (maybe the one he used to help you when you forgot your e-mail password last month). In seconds he will have a list of every website that you have visited, your username, and your password.
It won’t take long for him to order a new credit card in your name… and maybe buy some goodies on eBay with your PayPal account. I don’t know what else he might do, I am not that kind of guy. But I have met people who were… and they scared me straight.
So what happens now?
Any website that is business-related won’t matter… once you have left the company they have a right to whatever data you would glean from them anyways. If the IT Admin does anything on those sites with your credentials it will be easy to prove – ‘Hey, I was let go at 3:45pm on Friday the 13th, and that malicious post was written from my corporate laptop on Tuesday the 17th… four days after the laptop was taken from me.’
Anything that’s personal… well my friend, you should not have been using your business laptop to do your eBay shopping, or your on-line banking. You could file a criminal complaint and you might get your money back… but by the time the cops come to investigate (and they will almost certainly never do that) they dishonest but not stupid IT Admin will have wiped the laptop clean and there will be no record of wrongdoing.
So what do I do?
Once you are in the position you are already too late; what you need to do is separate business from pleasure at the very beginning. If you are already using your company computer for personal use then a) stop now, and b) from a personal computer change all of your on-line passwords now.
But would he really…?
I don’t know your IT Admin… Maybe he’s a good guy (or a good girl) who would never do anything like this. But why put yourself at risk? Take the temptation away from him or her and just don’t use your corporate computer for personal activities.
…Or you can take the risk, and then find out how frustrating it is to have to cancel credit cards and swear affidavits that the offending transactions were not yours in the faint hope that your bank will reverse the charges
I held out as long as I could; I have never used a password vault, thinking that I could remember all of my passwords for several dozen sites and applications without having to trust them to any third party.
Of course, many of the passwords I used were reused a few times, and oftentimes I would have to ask a site to remind me of what my password was. I finally broke down and said okay, I was going to do it.
I signed up for the site that a trusted friend recommended; I even spent the $12 to get the premium service (mostly so that I could use multi-factor authentication with my Yubikey). I then downloaded the app to my laptop. I installed the app…
…and what happened next scared the wits out of me.
I should mention that I knew this was the case; I have in the past used tools to discover passwords on peoples’ computers (and on mine when I forgot them). So why was I surprised when the password app showed me a list of every site I have ever visited from this computer, with a button that said ‘Click here to display passwords’??
Yes, it is true. Unless you take special preventive measures, your computer saves every password you ever use; they are hardly even secured – this program did not take hours or even minutes to list them off, they were readily viewable in under ten seconds… including the passwords for my online banking.
How could this be? It’s simple… passwords suck. They are probably the best option that most of us have available to us, but they really do suck. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) solutions like a Yubikey or smartphone authentication programs provide much better solutions, but there are problems with those – firstly they require you to have a device, and secondly they require the site (or application) that you are connecting to support their tool. So if you are connecting to YouTube (which is a Google site) you can use Google MFA; however if you are logging on to some random site where you participate in forums, there is a good chance that this will not be available to you, and you will have to use old fashioned passwords (see article).
The problem with passwords isn’t that they are hard to use, it is that most people do not use them correctly. That is a pretty broad statement, but if you are honest with yourself, how many passwords do you use that are over 90 days old? How many of your passwords are repeated across sites? Some password vault tools will let you run a test across all of the sites in the vault, and it is a cold splash of water in the face to run one of these tests and get a 32% score (yes, I am as guilty of many of these behaviours as everyone else).
For years I said the worst enemy of IT security was yellow sticky notes, and they still are. However it has gotten so much worse than ever, because every site wants complex passwords, and to get around the complexity rules people are using things like DogName1, then DogName2, and so on. I see stickers like the one shown more often than I care to say. The more often we have to change a password, the worse the situation will be. The problem grows exponentially when we have more sites forcing us to do the same thing. So if we have to change a password on ten different sites every ninety days, we are exponentially more likely to pick the same passwords, or derivatives thereof.
But is it reasonable to expect everyone to pick completely random, un-guessable passwords? Is *880638Z7965 a good, completely secure password? Probably not. For one thing, it is going to be impossible for us mere mortals to remember, and so we are going to write them down; for another, if someone gets access to your computer (or smartphone, or any device that you use to log onto whatever site you are trying to keep secure). Remember… if the Password Vault software can determine what your passwords are, so can the hackers.
I recently sent out an e-mail called The Ways of Small Business IT in which I highlighted some of the perils of a small business IT environment; one of the issues I highlighted was users leaving their unlocked workstations unattended. There are much more dire (and scarier) consequences to this behaviour than having your local information stolen. Simple programs installed from a USB key can reveal and steal every password you have ever used on the workstation – business, pleasure, banking, personal, dating sites… everything. So the miscreant would not have to sit at your computer for very long to own you – all they have to do is sit down for a minute and then walk away with all of your sites, usernames, and passwords. Then at their leisure they can access your life from wherever they want.
Scary? Yes. Preventable? Of course. A user who locks their computer when they walk away has taken great steps to prevent this attack. But what happens if the miscreant did not target your computer? What if they target a site where you use your catch-all password? Well it shouldn’t be a problem because that site will shut itself down until it has fixed its own security holes, right?
WRONG. The scary phrase in that last sentence is catch-all password. Here’s what I mean, and for the moment we are going to use the example of a site that we know to have been recently hacked.
Yeah I know you didn’t have an account, and you are completely faithful to your partner, but for the sake of the example, the user list on AshleyMadison.com is compromised. They have your credit card information, but that’s okay because your credit card is insured; they have your name and dating preferences, and that’s a damned shame… but there are fourteen million other men (and seventeen other women) who are in the same boat as you. It’s in the media and it’s ugly, and you are spending half of your time fighting with your partner that someone had used your credit card (and name, and picture, and your sexual preferences) to create their own profile on the site, and the other half of the time speculating about who else was on it, and… you know, doing whatever else you do during the day.
What you do not spend any time doing is changing the password on YourBank.com, YourTradingCompany.com, YourOtherServices.com, and so on. It doesn’t matter that you had been using the same password on those sites as you did on AshleyMadison.com, because… well, in truth you just never gave it much thought, and isn’t it just so much easier to use the same password everywhere so you don’t forget?
Now the bad guys have your password… and believe me, it isn’t tough to guess your username for all of those sites… especially since you also used the same password for your e-mail account, so what they can’t easily figure out they can easily ask all of the other businesses to resend it and the businesses will do it because the hackers asked from your e-mail account.
Is there a good solution? For businesses there are several… multi-factor authentication, soft tokens, and so on. For individuals? Well, there’s vigilance… and listening to people like me when we tell you not to use the same passwords, and not to write them down, and to change them frequently.
In my next article I am going to use a lot of the tools I discussed in this piece to demonstrate why your work laptop should only be used for your work resources.
This is NOT an article about my mother. She just happens to be the person at the other end of this conversation, but it could have been any house guest.
My mother has been staying with me for the past few days. It is the first time she has stayed with me, and it has been a learning experience for both of us.
One of the things that she had to get used to was that my TV is not set up in any useable way to anyone but me. I know, it’s a pain in the ass, but I live alone, and under normal circumstances the only person (other than me) who would ever use the TV is my son… and he is just as happy to let me log in for him.
I promise, someday I will get around to making the system more useable, but it’s just not a priority.
So this morning I had one foot out the door when my mother asked me ‘Oh… if I want to watch TV, how do I do it?’ The simple answer is… You don’t. Okay, you have an iPad, you can watch Netflix.
‘But why can’t you just show me how to use your TV?’
Well there are a couple of reasons for that, but the one I opted to go with was that I would have had to give her my password, which was my primary password for everything on my network. I could have gone with ‘I don’t have the time,’ or ‘I’m sorry, but the media device is very finicky and you would be calling me all day to ask questions,’ or ‘I don’t want you surfing my porn collection.’ No, I went with the password.
‘Oh, really… like I would use your password for anything other than watching TV. Really, I don’t even know how to use your computer!’
There are a lot of arguments that people could make in favour of sharing passwords… and they are all wrong. There is in my mind no legitimate reason why two people should share their passwords with each other… not when information security is an issue.
What do I mean by ‘Information security?’ Let’s look into this. If I were to give someone my password, what could they possibly do on my computer?
1. My banking credentials and information may be cached.
2. I have letters and documents that are extremely confidential. Some are personal, some are business, none are anyone’s business other than the people I share them with.
3. On my desktop there is a link that connects my personal PC to my corporate VPN. While I do not have my credentials cached, the extra layer of security provides Defense-in-Depth, which is eliminated by sharing my password.
4. My e-mail… In other words, anyone with my password could very easily send an e-mail in my name… to anyone.
5. My blogs are set up so that anyone authenticating to my PC can post to any of them… and that is not acceptable.
6. Oh come on… do I really need to go further?
So if I trust someone 100% should I be willing to trust them with my password? Well, I don’t trust anyone 100%, but that is not the question. In this case, even if I trust her 100%, we have to assume that my boss (who has never met her) doesn’t… and since some of the information that my password is protecting is my company’s, the answer is no, I should not trust them with my password.
Do I believe my mother would use my password for any reason other than watching TV? Frankly I do not. Do I think she is capable of getting into anything that she shouldn’t? Well, she does know how to use e-mail, so that is a possibility, but I do not think that she would.
The problem is not what I think she would do. The problem is this: What happens if I get back to my computer tonight, and something is amiss. What happens if something is missing, or changed, or whatever? Well the reality is that chances are it is from something that I did, but my first reaction would not be that. So why take the chance? Why risk losing the ability to trust my mother because of something that may or may not have been her fault? Simple… don’t put yourself into the position.
I connected my mother’s iPad to my wireless network, and she should be able to do anything she needs on that device… if she had the wherewithal to hack into my systems via wifi then I would be a sitting duck, but she doesn’t… in fact not only does she not have the ability, she also does not have the desire or malicious intent.
On the first page of the book The Sum of All Fears there is a quote that I have always liked. I thought it was a Winston Churchill quote, but as I looked it up on the Internet it looks like it is attributed to Benjamin Franklin. It is:
Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead
Is that true? Maybe yes and maybe no, but the only true way you can know for certain that nobody will share your secrets is by not sharing them with anyone else. Passwords are the same way.
I have been asked before if I have a password store in case I get hit by a truck. The answer is that I do not. Why not? There is nothing that I need people to access if I am dead. They can reformat my computer and all of my hard drives and use them to their hearts’ content… but the information is mine. I don’t need anyone logging into my Facebook or LinkedIn after I am gone, and with regard to my banking, well the executor of my estate will have the legal means to deal with the banks. Some information can die with me, and I am quite at peace with that knowledge. My blogs? Once I am dead the last post will have been posted, and they will remain there until WordPress decides to take them down. E-mail? Nobody needs to be notified of my death who cannot be notified by other means.
Passwords are private, and should remain so. The integrity of your data and systems and reputation relies on that. Sharing them with anyone is a bad idea, and if you disagree? Well don’t tell me I didn’t warn you!
This would never have happened with Windows XP.
As I always do after a long day of driving I woke up this morning and reached for my phone. I had driven 1,092kms the previous day, which meant that I spent my attention on the road and not on my phone – doubly so because it was a Sunday, and in my current role nothing earth-shattering ever happens on Sunday. I did, however, check my email during the occasional stop… and it worked.
This morning it did not.
My email password for my @microsoft.com email account was not working, but I wasn’t worried… I was sure that I would log on and find out that there had been some glitch in the system between 7:48am and 7:51am, and that all was well.
…and then it occurred to me that it has been roughly a year to the day since I got my account, and it was possible that it had expired – or worse, not been renewed.
I checked Lync. Lync works on an entirely different system than email, and it should work.
“We can’t sign you in. Please check your account info and try again.”
Crap… this is serious… I may, as of this morning, no longer be an @microsoft.com! That would be terrible for many reasons, not the least of which was that someone decided to shut me off without a conversation 😦
When you log on to Windows 8 (or any version for that matter) Windows (Kerberos actually, but that’s another story) checks your credentials against an Active Directory Domain Controller. It happens every time. It doesn’t only check to see that your password is valid, it checks that your account is valid, and if your password is expired (or set to expire). It gives you plenty of notice too… it will start warning you two weeks or so before the expiry date so that you don’t miss it.
Unfortunately it does not work the same way when waking your system from sleep or unlocking your previously authenticated account. All it does is confirm that your account was valid when you last logged on, and that your password is correct. Kerberos does not go out to Active Directory for this, it just checks the locally cached credentials.
So what happens in a world where Windows is so solid that you almost never have to log off? In the last three weeks I have worked from the office in Mississauga, the office in Montreal, the office in Ottawa, several locations in Portland (Maine), and of course a weekend in Redmond and a day on campus… from hotel rooms, Internet cafes, and for 20 stressful minutes last week from the passenger seat of my wife’s minivan as we drove from Toronto to Montreal. At the end of my session I simply closed the lid to my laptop and put it away, or simply locked the screen.
In three weeks I have not had to log off my computer because Windows is so much more stable than it ever was.
The unfortunate and unexpected consequence to this, unfortunately, is that this morning rather than working from home as I had planned I had to come into the office because once that password expires you have to be physically connected to the internal network to change it… DirectAccess (one of the greatest tools ever invented for the purpose of working remotely) doesn’t cut it… because your credentials to connect are currently invalid!
So yes, my password expired. No, my account has not been disabled, and yes, you are going to have to put up with me for a while longer. However I hope you learn from my experience… if it’s been a while since you were prompted to change your password don’t wait… do it proactively so that you can work in your pajamas and avoid the Monday morning rush hour!
Many of you know that I am a fanatic about changing passwords and password complexity. I have written time and again about the subject. (See Pass the Word…)
I am also a big hater of what my friend Dana Epp refers to as ‘Security Theatre.’ I have often berated people at Rogers, AT&T, and a plethora of other companies who ask me ‘and for security purposes can you please tell me your date of birth?’ REALLY? IT’S ON MY FACEBOOK PAGE! How about you ask me what colour tie I wore to the last Black Tie event I attended, or what colour was the hockey puck we used when I played ice hockey?
I came across an article written by fellow Microsoft MVP Bill Pytlovany. I have never met Bill but he makes some very good points about answering security questions (my mother’s maiden name is Brown by the way) that people should keep in mind when answering these questions. Bill’s MVP Award is in Consumer Security, and I can see why. Enjoy the article! –MDG