Pastebin analysis reveals true scale of 2013 data breaches

How bad? Just bad

The true scale of global data breaches must reach into the hundreds of millions, according to Swiss penetration testing outfit High-Tech Bridge which has discovered that 311,095 user credentials were posted to the popular Pastebin website during 2013 alone.

That haul represents the number of user records (i.e. logins and other credentials) posted to the site although in some cases the records were deleted so the firm fished them out of Google's cache.

Although it's a small number in relation to the tens of millions of records stolen in November from US retailer Target, the 311,095 represents only a miniscule fraction of the total number of records hackers must have lifted from organisations and individuals during the year.

According to High-Tech Bridge, because hackers use Pastebin to post samples, what they found probably represents somewhere between a tenth of one percent and one percent of the total in play at any one time. The firm said it had been careful to remove fake hacks, duplicates and small crimes below 100 records.

Now add to that Target's 70 to 110 million records that show the upper end of what is possible and the scale of data breaches starts to become overwhelming.

The records on Pastebin comprised logins for websites, although many also contained credit cards numbers in various states of undress plus addresses and phone numbers. In short, this is not the sort of stuff anyone wants hanging around in the clear.

Breaking down the records, 411 percent related to email/webmail systems, 13 percent social media, 2.8 percent online games, 1.5 percent online payment and around 1 percent online retail. Another 40 percent were "mixed, miscellaneous or unknown."

Top of the email breach league table was Gmail with 25.1 percent, ahead of Yahoo with 22 percent, Hotmail with 7.6 percent and the Russian mail.ru with 5.2 percent. Facebook made up 92 percent of all the social media accounts discovered, way ahead of Twitter with 7.8 percent (these numbers reflect the popularity of services in some cases so don't necessarily mean that Gmail and Facebook are less secure).

"Three hundred thousand compromised user accounts during the last twelve months is a huge number if we take into consideration that this amount of information is being stored just on one single legitimate website," said High-Tech Bridge CEO, Ilia Kolochenko.

"Moreover, these 300,000 are just a small percentage of the stolen information posted publically by hackers. It's impossible to make a precise estimate of how many user accounts were really compromised, but I think we can speak about several hundreds of millions at least."

This is an important point. Pastebin is popular for its QED hacking but it's far from the only place that this data can turn up, indeed serious commercial hackers would be unlikely to use it for fear of discovery. That lowers the potential value of a breach.

Why things have got this bad is not hard to fathom; in Kolochenko's view, it's a mix of insecure web applications and conventional Trojan scraping from end users. The way fragmented databases are connected to these insecure front ends also doesn't help, he said.

More complex weaknesses such as the one believed to have undermined Target usually result in the most spectactular and public losses.

The one spot of good news is that the suicidal passwords (i.e. '123456') are less common than some recent stories might suggest. The commonest failure was simply adding a number to a common noun, opening users to trivial dictionary hacks. Most serious of all, users also have a habit of re-using the same passwords over and over, a behaviour that multiplies the effects of a single breach across many other sites.

Earlier this month High-Tech Bridge revealed that while patching times have improved in the last year, progress is still behind improvements on the side of the attackers.

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