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August 22, 2012

Securely Storing Passwords

Editor's Note: Security is one of the limiting factors in adopting cloud computing. HP, as well as its partners, will tell you that cloud computing and similar remote access is a forward-thinking alternative to HP 3000 centralized on-site computing. But there's that security thing.

More than 30 years ago VEsoft's Eugene Volokh chronicled the fundamentals of security for 3000 owners trying to protect passwords and user IDs. Much of that access hasn't changed at all, and the 3000's security by obscurity has helped it evade things like Denial of Service attacks, routinely reported and then plugged for today's Unix-based systems. Consider these 3000 fundamentals from Eugene's Burn Before Reading, hosted on the Adager website.

Logon security is probably the most important component of your security fence. This is because many of the subsequent security devices (e.g. file security) use information that is established at logon time, such as user ID and account name. Thus, we must not only forbid unauthorized users from logging on, but must also ensure that even an authorized user can only log on to his user ID.

If one and only one user is allowed to use a particular use ID, he may be asked to enter some personal information (his mother's maiden name?) when he is initially added to the system, and then be asked that question (or one of a number of such personal questions) every time he logs on. This general method of determining a user's authorizations by what he knows we will call "knowledge security."

Unfortunately, the knowledge security approach, although one of the best available, has one major flaw -- unlike fingerprints, information is easily transferred, be it revealed voluntarily or involuntarily; thus, someone who is not authorized to use a particular user id may nonetheless find out the user's password. You may say: "Well, we change the passwords every month, so that's not a problem." The very fact that you have to change the passwords every month means that they tend to get out through the grapevine! A good security system does not need to be redone every month, especially since that would mean that -- at least toward the end of the month -- the system is already rather shaky and subject to penetration.

There's a broader range of techniques to store passwords securely, especially important for the 3000 owner who's moving to more popular, less secured IT like cloud computing. We've asked a security pro who manages the pre-payment systems at Oxygen Financial to share these practices for that woolier world out there beyond MPE and the 3000.

By Steve Hardwick, CISSP

There has been a lot in the news recently about password theft and hacking into email accounts. Everything needs a password to access it. One of the side effects of the cloud is the need to be able to separate information from the various users that access a centrally located service. In the case where I have data on my PC, I can create one single password that controls access to all of the apps that reside on the drive plus all of the associated data.

There is a one-to-one physical relationship between the owner and the physical machine that hosts the information. This allows a simpler mechanism to validate the user. In the cloud world it is not as easy. There is no longer a physical relationship with the user. In fact a user may be accessing several different physical locations when running applications or accessing information. This has led to a dramatic increase in the number of passwords and authentication methods that are in use.

I just did a count of my usernames and passwords and I have 37 different accounts (most with unique usernames and password). Plus there are several sites where I use the same usernames and password combinations. You may ask why are some unique and why are some shared. The answer is based on the risk of a username or password be compromised. If I consider an account to have a high value, high degree of loss/impact if hacked, then it gets a unique username or password.

Email accounts are a good example. I have a unique username and password for my five email accounts. However, I do have one email account that is reserved solely for providing a username for other types of access. When I go to a site that requires an email address to set up an account , that is the one I use. Plus, I am not always selecting a unique password. The assumption is that if that username and password is stolen, then the other places it can be used are only other web site access accounts of low value. I also have a second email account that I use to set up more sensitive assess, google drive for example. This allows me to limit the damage if one of the accounts is compromised, and so I don't end up with a daisy chain of hacked accounts.

So the next question is how do you go about generating a bunch of passwords? One easy way is to go into your favorite search engine and type in password generator. You will get a fairly good list of applications that you can use to generate medium to strong passwords. But what if you don't want to download an application -- what is another way?

When I used to teach security this was one trick I would share with my students. Write a list of four or five short words that are easy to remember. Since my first name is Steve we can use that. This of four or five short number 4-5 digits in length 1999 for example. Now pick a word and number combination and intersperse the numbers and letters S1t9e9v9e would be the result of Steve and 1999. Longer words and longer numbers make strong passwords – phone numbers and last names works well. With 5 words and 5 numbers you get 25 passwords. One nice benefit of this approach comes when you need to change your password. Write the number backwards and merge the word and data back together.

Next: How to remember all of those passwords. 

Steve Hardwick (CISSP) is the Product Manager at Oxygen Financial, which offers advanced payment management solutions. He has over 20 years of worldwide technology experience. He was also a CISSP instructor with Global Knowledge for three years and held security positions at several companies.

02:49 PM in Hidden Value, Migration, Newsmakers | Permalink

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