Do You Need A Safe Word?

Should we implement "safe words"?

I read this Forbes piece on the hacker “Kayla”, which led me to this correspondence posted when she (or he) hacked HBGary Federal. The transcript of emails is rather amazing  and a little scary. She manages to get access to the servers through a clever bit of social engineering against a security specialist.

The whole plot depends on access to a person’s email account, but that’s entirely possible. Imagine creating a distraction and then stealing a target’s smartphone. Done cleverly, a busy executive or IT worker might think they lost the phone and spend time trying to track it down. Meanwhile a hacker has access to their email, sending who knows what messages out.

As system administrators, or anyone with privileged access to systems or data, should we assume that an email request from a person for a password reset, or an access request to additional privileges is genuine? My thought is that we might not want to “trust” these systems and instead, implement some other type of verification method along with this trusted access. Perhaps we ought to call the person and verify the request if we know their voice, or require them to present their request in person. At one place I worked, we used to require someone to personally come to the IT office unless we were sure we knew that person’s voice. That’s not a perfect solution, but it could help increase security.

Maybe we need a safe word for each privileged account. It could be a word we request from the user when they ask, or maybe it is an uncommon word that has to be worked into the request to help verify the end user’s identity. Ideally we would just feed the message into some system that would authenticate it, rather than allowing a technician to manually verify the safe word from some store of words.

Security is hard, but and none of my suggestions is perfect, but as there are more and more script kiddies, hackers, and social engineering professionals, perhaps a little paranoia is a good thing. Perhaps making it hard to gain addition access, especially privileged access, is a good idea.

Steve Jones


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