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Facebook plain text password threat: Are you exposed? What should you do now?

DECCAN CHRONICLE
Published Mar 22, 2019, 1:26 pm IST
Updated Mar 22, 2019, 1:26 pm IST
By storing passwords in readable plain text, Facebook violated fundamental computer-security practices.
Facebook said there is no evidence its employees abused access to this data. But thousands of employees could have searched them. The company said the passwords were stored on internal company servers, where no outsiders could access them. Even so, some privacy experts suggested that users change their Facebook passwords.
 Facebook said there is no evidence its employees abused access to this data. But thousands of employees could have searched them. The company said the passwords were stored on internal company servers, where no outsiders could access them. Even so, some privacy experts suggested that users change their Facebook passwords.

Facebook left hundreds of millions of user passwords readable by its employees for years, the company acknowledged Thursday after a security researcher exposed the lapse. By storing passwords in readable plain text, Facebook violated fundamental computer-security practices. Those call for organizations and websites to save passwords in a scrambled form that makes it almost impossible to recover the original text.

"There is no valid reason why anyone in an organization, especially the size of Facebook, needs to have access to users' passwords in plain text," said cybersecurity expert Andrei Barysevich of Recorded Future.

 

Facebook said there is no evidence its employees abused access to this data. But thousands of employees could have searched them. The company said the passwords were stored on internal company servers, where no outsiders could access them. Even so, some privacy experts suggested that users change their Facebook passwords.

Facebook responds with a promise to ensure a stronger password privacy and security. On their blog, Facebook responded, ‘As part of a routine security review in January, we found that some user passwords were being stored in a readable format within our internal data storage systems. This caught our attention because our login systems are designed to mask passwords using techniques that make them unreadable. We have fixed these issues and as a precaution we will be notifying everyone whose passwords we have found were stored in this way. To be clear, these passwords were never visible to anyone outside of Facebook and we have found no evidence to date that anyone internally abused or improperly accessed them. We estimate that we will notify hundreds of millions of Facebook Lite users, tens of millions of other Facebook users, and tens of thousands of Instagram users. Facebook Lite is a version of Facebook predominantly used by people in regions with lower connectivity.

In the course of our review, we have been looking at the ways we store certain other categories of information — like access tokens — and have fixed problems as we’ve discovered them. There is nothing more important to us than protecting people’s information, and we will continue making improvements as part of our ongoing security efforts at Facebook.’

Since you could be affected by the issue, you may be wondering what you should do ahead? Should you change your password? And how can you ensure your account is not being used by someone who knows your password already?

Paul Ducklin, a senior technologist at Sophos, sends us some tips on what you should do if you are worried about your password being exposed.

Should I change my Facebook password?

Why not? It's perfectly possible that no passwords at all fell into the hands of any crooks as a result of this. But if any passwords did get into the wrong hands (and you can bet your boots that the crooks are trawling through any old data they might have right now, to see if there is anything they missed before), then you can expect them to be abused. Hashed passwords still need to be cracked before they can be used; plaintext passwords are the real deal without any further hacking or cracking needed.

So the advice is: change your password now.

Should I turn on two-factor authentication?

Yes, turn on two-factor authentication (2FA) now. We've been urging you to do use two-factor authentication everywhere you can anyway - it means that a password alone isn't enough for crooks to raid your account.

If you are reluctant to give Facebook your phone number, use app-based authentication, where your mobile phone generates a one-time code each time you log in.

Should I close my Facebook account?

We can't answer that for you. Given that the wrongly-stored passwords weren't easily accessible in one database, or deliberately stored for routine use during logins, we don't think this breach alone is enough reason to terminate your account. On the other hand, it's a pretty poor look for Facebook, and it might be enough, amongst all the other privacy concerns that have dogged Facebook in recent years, to convince you to take that final step. In short, you have to decide for yourself. (If it helps you decide, we're not closing our accounts.)

John Shier, a senior security advisor at Sophos informs us about how this story ties into all the other recent news of Facebook.

“Despite the recent public struggles Facebook has had with respect to privacy and security, this incident is a little different. Authentication data is something that Facebook treats very seriously and has put in place many mechanisms, both externally and internally, to ensure that user credentials are safeguarded. While the details of the incident are still emerging, this is likely an accidental programming error that led to the logging of plain text credentials. That said, this should never have happened and Facebook needs to ensure that no user credentials or data were compromised as a result of this error. This is also another reminder for people who are still reusing passwords or using weak passwords to change their Facebook password to something strong and unique and to turn on 2-factor authentication,” said Shier.

So go ahead, ensure that your passwords are changed immediately and make sure that you turn on that 2-factor authentication.

(With inputs from AP)

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