The Syrian Electronic Army wins again as 1 million Forbes accounts breached

Weak password security exposed

The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) has struck again, defacing the Forbes news website and publishing the names, email addresses and encrypted passwords of over a million of its users.

The group claimed responsibility for the attack on Friday, showing off screenshots taken from the site's Wordpress publishing system and suggesting that the stolen user credentials for 1,057,819 accounts would be put up for sale. Instead, the SEA later dumped the cache as a file on a third-party site.

Forbes quickly admitted the breach, warning on Facebook that "the email address for anyone registered with has been exposed. Please be wary of emails that purport to come from Forbes, as the list of email addresses may be used in phishing attacks."

"The passwords were encrypted, but as a precaution, we will strongly encourage readers to change their passwords on our system once we make sign-on available again," read the notice.

Three stories had been defaced during the attack, the site told Re/code. The SEA claimed it had also breached Twitter accounts - a particular specialty it has wielded in numerous previous attacks on media firms - before blaming a named Forbes employee for the attack without explaining why.

This is where it starts to get a little bit messy for Forbes.

According to Sophos, which looked at the file dump of the stolen database, the passwords were stored in PHPass Portable and hashed with the ostensibly secure 8,193-iteration MD5. Unfortunately, as with every other password database, many users chose weak passwords, which would make them vulnerable to a sophisticated dictionary attack picking off the weakest ones.

The firm also noticed that around 500 Forbes employees were among the victims.

"It took about an hour, using one core of a vanilla laptop, to crack close to one-quarter of the passwords of the 500 or so Forbes employees in the database," wrote Sophos security researcher, Paul Ducklin. Worse still:

"Astonshingly, 73 Forbes staffers (more than one-eighth of the list) had chosen a password consisting of their company's name, Forbes, followed by zero to four digits. 1 and 123 were the most common suffixes."

It's a safe bet that these accounts will now have been changed but that will not be the case for any outside user on the database who chose in a similarly unwise manner.

The attack comes at a delicate moment for Forbes, reportedly in the process of selling itself to one of a number of non-US firms.

As for the SEA, Forbes is just the latest in a long line of victims that has in recent weeks included Microsoft, subsidiary Skype and CNN. Earlier in February, the group also attempted a domain takeover of Facebook, which failed thanks to a domain lock put in place after the trick was tried on other organisations in 2013.

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