Baryo Bar Yosef
September 6, 2023

Passwords Cracked: The Security Gaps in the U.S. Department of the Interior's System

Passwords are the frontlines of cybersecurity, but a recent inspection on the U.S. Department of the Interior paints a sobering picture of the true state of password security. As engineers, these findings should give us pause, urging us to reassess how we approach authentication systems in our projects.

A Worrying Scenario

Let's start with the alarming statistics. During the inspection, a staggering 21% of active user passwords were cracked. Of these, 288 were accounts with elevated privileges and 362 were accounts belonging to senior U.S. Government employees. Within the first 90 minutes of testing alone, 16% of the department's user accounts were compromised. Even so-called "strong" passwords like `Nationalparks2014!` fell to the scrutiny of the testing tools.

The Hashed Password Fallacy

A noteworthy point was raised regarding hashed passwords. Conventional wisdom dictates that hashed passwords are secure. The general assumption is that even if these hashed passwords are stolen, they can’t be used due to the hashing. Additionally, brute-forcing your way into a hashed password is commonly believed to be near-impossible. However, this inspection challenges that very assumption, signaling the need for more robust password management and authentication mechanisms.

The Reusable Password Problem

Password reuse continues to plague the system, with the most commonly reused password (`Password-1234`) found in 478 unique active accounts. Alarmingly, this means a single breach could potentially compromise hundreds of accounts simultaneously.

Why Engineers Should Be Concerned

This isn't just a problem of poor passwords; it’s a systemic issue that makes even robust accounts vulnerable. The absence of multifactor authentication for 89% of the department’s High Value Assets leaves these critical systems ripe for attacks. And let's not forget: if an account with elevated privileges is compromised, the attacker has far-reaching capabilities, from data theft to altering logs to hide their tracks.

A Call for a Holistic Approach

The implications of these findings are clear. As engineers, we must think beyond the traditional password. We must embrace a holistic approach that includes multifactor authentication, rigorous password policies, and perhaps even alternative forms of authentication. We should question long-held assumptions, like the infallibility of hashed passwords, and constantly adapt to the evolving landscape of cybersecurity threats.

So whether you’re an engineer working solo or part of a larger team, remember that in the realm of security, complacency is your worst enemy. The strength of a system’s security is determined not just by its strongest asset but by its weakest link. It's time we started reinforcing those links.