The Growing Importance of Strong Passwords

I received a call today from the Fraud Prevention service of my credit card company, saying that “someone” called in to Customer Service, posing as me, and attempted to gather information about my account. This person had my credit card number, but failed to get past the additional security questions asked by the support staff. The support staff then promptly called me, and asked if it was I who tried to call in to Customer Service. The moment I said “no,” the operator told me that my account will be immediately deactivated to prevent any fraudulent charges, and that a new credit card would be mailed to me within 5 business days.

Despite the inconvenience of having my credit card account shut down, and being issued a new card, I applaud the support staff for taking their users’ security so seriously. But this incident also got me thinking about the current level of security used by online retailers, as well as online banking and credit card websites. After all, how exactly did a would-be identity thief get a hold of my credit card number? All of my online purchases are through very reputable stores like Amazon and Newegg. All the items I purchase are completely legal — i.e. no kinky horse-on-girl porn from shady Russian websites. All of my transactions are over SSL, and I’m quite sure that I don’t have a keylogger installed on my system.

This leads to one of the following conclusions, arranged from least to most likely:

  • Someone cracked my SSL session with an online retailer. This is astronomically unlikely, but still possible.
  • Someone hacked one of the online retailer’s servers, and retrieved the raw database of credit card numbers for thousands of customers.
  • Someone hacked one of the company’s servers, and retrieved password hashes for thousands of users, and decoded the passwords at his/her own leisure. If the hacker is an employee of the company, no hacking would even be necessary. The database would be readily available for copying and selling to the black market.

As the incredibly eye-opening Ophcrack project has shown, old-style passwords are no longer safe (i.e. passwords shorter than 15 characters, consisting only of letters and numbers). Any Windows system administrator who hasn’t disabled LM Hashes has been living in a cave, and any Linux administrator who isn’t using shadow passwords is almost equally neglectful. And of course, any administrator or developer who stores users’ passwords in plain-text format should be fired on the spot, and have the infraction recorded as a felony in his criminal record.

The point is, many forms of identity theft can be prevented by using strong passwords — that is, passwords that are generously long (15 or more characters), that contain uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters like $, %, &, space, and maybe even extëndéð Åscíí characters, or even Unicode!

The question is, are online retailers and banking websites “ready” for strong passwords?

No!

At least that’s the short answer. As an example, let’s take a look at what happened when I tried to change my password on my banking website, which happens to be Huntington. I typed in a strong password with letters, numbers, and special characters, and this is what I got:
I beg your pardon?! Of all the websites in the world, banking sites should be the most secure by definition. And yet, here we are with Huntington’s website telling us to limit our password to 16 characters, and not use any special characters!

In Huntington’s defense, they do provide an additional level of security by asking a secret question (in addition to the password), if a user logs in from a different IP.

I can understand enforcing minimum requirements for password strength, which Huntington does, but setting limitations on password strength? What gives?

Let’s move on to my credit card website, which is Chase. Attempting to change my password there, I get the following:
Again, they tell us not to use special characters, and to limit the length of our password. Even though the length limitation here is 32 characters, my question is why is there a length limitation? And why can’t special characters be used?

If the excuse is that the underlying software that runs the website doesn’t support passwords with special characters, then the software is in serious need of revision. The password hashing algorithm should not care about what characters are passed into it.

I’m a big fan of passphrases, too — that is, passwords like “How many licks does it take?” or “Density = Mass/Volume” or “E = m*c^2”, all of which are much stronger than passwords of equal length with just letters and numbers. But, since these websites don’t allow passphrases, I’m forced to come up with a weaker password that fits all their guidelines and restrictions. Even worse, since each website may have slightly different restrictions on passwords, I’m forced to come up with a least-common-denominator password if I want to use one password for multiple sites.

With this kind of “password mess” on the most secure internet websites, it’s no wonder ordinary users become confused about what kind of passwords they are and aren’t allowed to use, and default to using common, easy-to-remember passwords that are just waiting to be cracked by malicious individuals.

The philanthropist

Just received this e-mail:

I wish to notify you that your name appeared in the codicil and last statement of your deceased relation, and you entitled to his fund of US$19,900,000.00 deposited with a bank here in Nigeria. I will advise you about the steps on how to redeem the inheritance funds from the bank.
Reply to me on time because the bank is waiting for you to show up and claim the funds.

Regards,
Barrister David Mark.
Legal Head, Wester and Co. Chambers.
14 board way Victoria Island, Lagos.

And my response:

Dear Barrister Mark,

Thank you for notifying me of the funds bestowed unto me by my late “relation.” As you know, my Nigerian heritage is very important to me, and I am pleased that my relation chose you to handle his will.

Fortunately I have a very simple resolution for this situation:
I hereby authorize you to donate the entire sum of my inheritance to a charity that helps fight the AIDS epidemic in your country of Nigeria and its neighbors. I will leave the choice of charity up to you — we’re all in this together. Naturally, you may withdraw any amount you see fit from this fund to pay for your legal fees. I have the utmost confidence that you will be fair and just in handling this money.

Once again, sir, I am in great debt to you for bringing this to my attention.
Best regards,

Dmitry Brant

More Modding of the RAZR V3xx

The quick-start guide that I gave two days ago is hereby out of date!

On another Motorola hacking website, modmymoto.com, I found a vastly superior program called P2KTools. This utility allows you to access absolutely everything the phone can possibly support. It even lets you switch communications between P2K, AT, and Flash mode.

Best of all, P2KTools doesn’t require PST Phone Programmer to operate. Apparently, PST is a proprietary Motorola application, and is illegal for distribution to the public. The good folks at hacktherazr.com fail to mention this clearly (naughty!).

When downloading P2KTools from modmymoto.com, make sure you get the latest version, which is 3.0.8 at this time. For some reason they have multiple earlier versions also available in their Downloads section. Are they trying to confuse people?

Once again, to communicate properly with the RAZR V3xx, go into the program’s Settings, and check the “P2K05” check box under “P2K Settings.” As we learned earlier, the V3xx only supports the newer P2K05 command set, and will not work with the regular P2K commands.

Modding the Motorola RAZR V3xx

[Disclaimer: Modding your phone probably voids all kinds of warranties, and is not recommended for anyone.]

Update: I found a better program for RAZR hacking!

This is a quick-start guide for anyone who wants to start hacking away at the RAZR V3xx. For some reason, other guides that I’ve found on the web either don’t apply to this particular model, or often contradict themselves and drove me into further confusion.

I recently “upgraded” my cell phone to a V3xx, with AT&T as my provider. Naturally I wanted to see what kind of features I could access within the phone, and to what extent I could customize its skin, sounds and interface.

Here is the exact sequence of steps I took to get my phone connected to my PC and start modifying its filesystem:

  • Go to hacktherazr.com, which is a site with plenty of loosely-knit resources for hacking the RAZR. The only drawback of the site is that it doesn’t contain any information specific to the V3xx, and all of their “get-started” guides only pertain to earlier models.
  • From the site’s “Start here” guide (not from their “Downloads” section), download the Motorola USB Driver Installer, install the drivers, and follow the rest of the “Start here” guide.
  • From their “Downloads” section, download and install “PST 7.2.5,” which is a utility from Motorola to facilitate communication with your phone. Make sure you apply the “patch” included in the Zip file! Installing this tool will probably require you to restart your computer.
  • The last tool that you’ll need is called P2K Commander. But do not use the version that they have on their site — it’s outdated and will not communicate with the V3xx! To get the latest version of P2K Commander, go to the author’s website and download it from there. As of this writing, the latest version is 4.9.D. The author requires you to register in his forums to download the files, but registration is free.
  • To prepare your phone for communicating with your PC, you must set its USB mode to “data connection.” To do this, go to Main Menu → Settings → Connection → USB Settings, and set the Default Connection to “Data Connection.”
  • On your PC, launch the PST Phone Programmer before you plug in your phone! Let PST load completely before plugging in.
  • Now plug in your phone, and give your PC a few seconds to recognize it. Then give PST a few more seconds to configure the phone for communication. You should hear the phone’s “charging” sound two or three times as it’s being configured, as well as the PC’s USB plug/unplug sound.
  • Now you’re ready to launch P2K Commander, so launch it. P2K Commander is a gateway to the phone’s internal filesystem. But, before doing anything in this tool, click on its “Options” menu, and check the “Use P2k05” check box! This is the critical step, since the V3xx uses the P2k05 command set, unlike its predecessors.
  • Finally, you’re ready to use P2K Commander to your heart’s content. From this point on, you’re welcome to follow the other guides outlined at hacktherazr.com, since most of them still apply.

Here is a very simple example of what could be done with P2K Commander and the RAZR V3xx:

Changing the secondary display image

When the phone is opened, its secondary display (the smaller display on the outside) only displays the AT&T logo. But suppose you wanted it to display something that was meaningful to you, such as this:
To change this graphic, use P2K Commander to navigate to the phone’s file system (“/a”) and go to the “mobile” directory.

In this directory, there is a file called cl.gif. That’s the file that gets displayed in the secondary display! This means that you can replace this file with whatever you want (as long as it’s called cl.gif), and it will be shown! Of course, keep in mind that this file must be a GIF file with dimensions of 96 x 80. Et voilà:
Short of reprogramming the phone’s firmware, there’s no end to the customizations you can make to your V3xx by simply editing or replacing certain files in the phone’s filesystem using P2K Commander. As always, don’t forget to back up any files you edit or replace. Enjoy!

The Intention Experiment(s?)

Unknown to me until now, Lynne McTaggart (author of The Field and The Intention Experiment, discussed in my previous post) has apparently been spearheading a series of actual “intention experiments” online. This is done by giving online readers a certain task to “intend” upon, and observing the results.

I found a very interesting discussion thread on the JREF Forum that details the various iterations of McTaggart’s website over the last several months. Apparently, every “intention experiment” promoted by the website is referred to as “the first intention experiment.” When that experiment fails or produces inconclusive data, the next experiment is called the “first,” and so on.

The “experiments” themselves appear to be completely nonsensical. For example, one of the experiments was to measure the emissions of “biophotons” from plants that were being intended to glow by distant observers. According to the website:

Our first experiments examined the alteration in the tiny light — called biophoton emissions — being emitted from living things. We chose to look at this tiny current of light, because it is infinitely more subtle than, say, cellular growth rate.

Of course! Why measure something tangible, when you can measure something “infinitely more subtle”!

The current incarnation of the Intention website doesn’t even brag about the results of the experiments anymore, but instead directs visitors to purchase McTaggart’s books and DVDs, and join an online community that’s reminiscent of some kind of sad, pathetic support group for people who are uncomfortable saying, “won’t you pray for me?”

Here’s an example of the Intention website’s community posts:

…In 2001 I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I had a mastectomy & chemo (experimental) that just about killed me. I had a bad reaction that left me with nerve damage and constant bone/joint/muscle stiffness & pain. Last week I had my annual mammogram on the remaining breast. I rec. a letter saying there was a “suspicious” area, so I have to return on 8-8-07 for more films/sonogram. I would really appreciate as many members as possible to send the intent that all will be fine

Wait a minute… for some reason that has a very familiar ring to it. What if we replace the word “intent” with the word “prayer”? Isn’t this the exact same thing?!

Who are they trying to kid? Instead of praying to an invisible supernatural deity, they’re simply praying to an invisible supernatural “field”! Well, I’m afraid the old adage still applies: Nothing fails like prayer.