A breach at LastPass has password lessons for us all


While many of us were unplugging from the internet to spend time with loved ones over the holidays, LastPass, the maker of a popular security program for managing digital passwords, delivered the most unwanted gift. It published details about a recent security breach in which cybercriminals had obtained copies of customers’ password vaults, potentially exposing millions of people’s online information.

From a hacker’s perspective, this is the equivalent of hitting the jackpot.

When you use a password manager like LastPass or 1Password, it stores a list containing all of the user names and passwords for the sites and apps you use, including banking, health care, email and social networking accounts. It keeps track of that list, called the vault, in its online cloud so you have easy access to your passwords from any device. LastPass said hackers had stolen copies of the list of user names and passwords of every customer from the company’s servers.

This breach was one of the worst things that could happen to a security product designed to take care of your passwords. But other than the obvious next step — to change all of your passwords if you used LastPass — there are important lessons that we can learn from this debacle, including that security products are not foolproof, especially when they store our sensitive data in the cloud.

First, it’s important to understand what happened: The company said intruders had gained access to its cloud database and obtained a copy of the data vaults of tens of millions of customers by using credentials and keys stolen from a LastPass employee.

LastPass, which published details about the breach in a blog post Dec. 22, tried to reassure its users that their information was probably safe. It said that some parts of people’s vaults — like the website addresses for the sites they logged in to — were unencrypted but that sensitive data, including user names and passwords, were encrypted. This would suggest that hackers could know the banking website someone used but not have the username and password required to log in to that person’s account.

Most importantly, the master passwords that users set up for unlocking their LastPass vaults were also encrypted. That means hackers would then have to crack the encrypted master passwords to get the rest of the passwords in each vault, which would be difficult to do, so long as people used a unique, complex master password.

Karim Toubba, CEO of LastPass, declined to be interviewed but wrote in an emailed statement that the incident demonstrated the strength of the company’s system architecture, which he said kept sensitive vault data encrypted and secured. He also said it was users’ responsibility to “practice good password hygiene.”

Many security experts disagreed with Toubba’s optimistic spin and said every LastPass user should change all of his or her passwords.

“It is very serious,” said Sinan Eren, an executive at Barracuda, a security firm. “I would consider all those managed passwords compromised.”

Casey Ellis, the chief technology officer of the security firm Bugcrowd, said it was significant that intruders had access to the lists of website addresses that people used.


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