Security researchers ponder possible Palin hacks

Password reset, sidejack, brute force or spear phising attack could each have given hacker access to Palin's e-mail account.

Security experts speculating Thursday on how Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's Yahoo! e-mail account had been hacked put forward several theories, with some skeptical of claims that the access was gained by a simple password reset.

A Yahoo! spokeswoman would not comment on the Palin hack or answer questions about the service's password reset feature. "In general, Yahoo doesn't comment on security policies," said Kelley Benander.

One or more hackers broke into Palin's account early Tuesday, then sent copies of several of its messages to news organizations and to WikiLeaks, a site known for publishing confidential and leaked documents. Among the leaked messages was one between Palin, the Republican nominee for vice president, and Alaska's current Lt. Gov., Sean Parnell, who is running for the state's lone congressional seat, and another with a former private investigator that Palin appointed to the Governor's Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse in October 2007.

Wednesday, the McCain-Palin campaign acknowledged the hack. "This is a shocking invasion of the Governor's privacy and a violation of law," the campaign said in a statement. "The matter has been turned over to the appropriate authorities."

Although it's unclear how Palin's account was accessed, at least one person has stepped forward to claim the hack. In a message posted to 4chan.org's "Random" message board -- the site's most popular, which also goes by "/b/" -- but since deleted, someone identified only as "Rubico" claimed to have gotten Palin's password by using Yahoo's own password reset mechanism.

Some security experts found that hard to believe.

"The whole password reset sounds dubious," said Paul Ferguson, a network architect at antivirus vendor Trend Micro Inc. "Yahoo! sends a password reset to a secondary e-mail account, so it sounds far-fetched to me that it would be that easy."

Yahoo! users who ask the service to remind them of their password are asked for just a few personal details -- such as birth date, country of residence and postal code -- but assuming those are entered correctly, the password is e-mailed to an alternate account, which has had to be entered previously. Computerworld 's tests today, which involved several accounts and used various combinations of password reset queries, always resulted in the Yahoo password or username being sent to an alternate address. However, if a user says his or her alternate e-mail address is unavailable, the password can be reset.

Other researchers, however, thought that the password reset method might make sense. "It's plausible," admitted Adam O'Donnell, director of emerging technologies at message security vendor Cloudmark. "That's a pretty accurate description on how to break into a system," he added, referring to Rubico's description of the attack.

"It's either a password reset or a brute force attack," O'Donnell continued. A brute force attack is one where the hacker simply tries the most likely passwords.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)
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