The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has stated in a new report that companies failing to adequately protect their passwords is just one of eight information security vulnerabilities that modern firms face. The 47-page document recommends that passwords are processed via ‘salting’ or ‘hashing’ to ensure they are better protected, and that a security update policy is applied.
Talking about the options when developing company passwords, the ICO revealed that using a hash function provides a one-way method of changing any password into a hashed value. When passwords are first set up, the initial hash value is stored. On subsequent entries of the password, the hash is recalculated and compared to the initial value, allowing users to be authenticated if the hashes match. The benefit of this method is that even if hackers gain a list of the stored hashes, they cannot directly work out the passwords; however, the watchdog explained that once hackers have a hash value, there is nothing to stop them guessing the password. This is why the method of salting is then required.
“A ‘salt’…is a string of random data unique to each user,” the ICO explained. “The salt is used by combining it with the user’s password, then hashing the result. The salt is then generally stored alongside the hash in a database. When a user logs in to the service, the stored salt and the supplied password are freshly combined and hashed. As in the unsalted method, the new hash and the stored hash are compared to determine if the user should be authenticated.” The ICO added that although hackers could get a list of salts and hashes, having to crack both prolongs the time it takes them to break the passcodes, enabling companies to take action if they know they have become vulnerable.
In addition to highlighting the password issue, the the ICO’s report also outlined the need for companies to invest in well-designed security architecture. Included in its suggestions were the use of external-facing and internal-facing systems to provide increased data security; in addition, security updates should be made as quickly as possible and all firms should have a clear software update policy in place.
With many companies around the world fearing a cyber-attack, it is important to take stock of IT systems and ensure that precautions are in place. With many people’s passwords not sufficiently protected, this is an area that businesses must focus on.
Written by Montash.
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