Yahoo plans to give up passwords

The latest scheme from Yahoo’s Crazy Ideas Department is to dispense with login passwords. Are they going to replace them with a certificate login or something more secure? Nope! The security-gaff prone outfit from Sunnyvale California has had the genius idea of sending a four-character one-time password to your mobile phone, according to an announcement they made at SXSW yesterday (or possibly today if you’re reading this in the USA).

According to Chris Stoned Stoner, their Product Development Director, the bright idea is to avoid the need to memorise difficult passwords by simply sending a new one, each time, to your registered mobile phone.

At first glance, this sounds a bit like the sensible two-factor authentication you find already: Log in using your password and an additional verification code is sent to your mobile. However, Yahoo has dispensed with the first part – logging in with your normal password. This means that anyone that has physical control of your mobile phone can now hijack your Yahoo account too. If your phone is locked, no matter – just retrieve the SMS using the SIM alone. No need to pwn Yahoo accounts the traditional way.

With an estimated 800,000 mobile phones nicked per year in the UK alone (Source inferred from ONS report) and about 6M handsets a year going AWOL in the USA, you’ve got to wonder what Yahoo was thinking.

Apart from the security risk, what are the chances of being locked out of your email simply because you’re out of mobile range (or if you’re phone has gone missing). Double whammy!

Another Yahoo mail account pwned

This is getting ridiculous. I don’t monitor Yahoo or other freemail accounts in any way, but it’s seems like almost every week I come across one that’s been taken over by criminals.  I got another email this morning from the account of an old friend sent by Yahoo webmail. He’s a a BT Internet customer, and I’ve no doubt from some features on it that it was sent out by someone sitting at a web browser, logged in as him. It wasn’t him, unless he’s moved to Hyderabad and taken up a life of crime – unlikely, he’s a retired fire officer in the north of England, and it’s not his style.

Yahoo obviously provides BT’s email service, so their customers get a Yahoo webmail account, like it or not.

This happens to other freemail users too, but the number of Yahoo accounts being hit is getting disproportionately ridiculous. Yahoo would need more customers than everyone else put together if this was just a random effect.

So what is going on? My assumption in cases like this is usually that the compromised accounts have been as a result of key loggers at Internet cafes or public Wi-Fi systems. It makes sense, and fits the facts in cases I’ve investigated. But not this time…

Earlier this year there was a problem with Yahoo involving cross-site scripting that could affect insecure web browsers (that includes all of the commonly used web browsers).  A character called Shahin Ramezany uploaded a video to YouTube  showing how to do this. Yahoo very quickly came back with a fix. They said. This just the latest in a long time of embarrassing problems – in Summer last year someone broke in to their computers and pinched a lot of confidential files.

Researchers at Bitdefender have also worked out how do to this, and it’s unclear whether Yahoo really has fixed the problem. For technical details, see CVE-2012-3414. It works by cookie harvesting, taking advantage of the way cookies are shared between different levels of a domain path.

Either this remains very much a problem, six weeks after Yahoo claimed to have fixed it, or the criminals have a large backlog of compromised user accounts and they’re just working through them. Users of freemail beware – how well do you think, with the best will in the world, that their operators will be able to provide technical assistance to hundreds of millions of advertising-supported punters?

If you have a Yahoo or BT Internet account, my advice is to log in and change the password right now, if you want to keep it.