eBay has been criticised for its advice to consumers on choosing a strong password in the wake of a megabreach that prompted it to tell millions of users to change their passwords.
The online tat bazaar admitted on Wednesday that a database containing "eBay customers’ name, encrypted password, email address, physical address, phone number and date of birth” was accessed by as-yet unidentified hackers.
Cybercrooks broke in between late February and early March after compromising employee log-in credentials, "allowing unauthorized access to eBay's corporate network". Financial information was not exposed by the breach but eBay is advising its estimated 150 million active users to change their passwords anyway, as a precaution.
Software developer and blogger Troy Hunt discovered that a password with 20 random chars with at least four lowercase, four uppercase, four numbers and four symbols was rated only as "medium strength" by eBay's password strength tool. So is the auction house nudging its users to choose fiendishly difficult login credentials? Actually, no.
Examples of what constitutes a "good, secure password" cited by eBay include $uperman1963 (or other combinations of at least 6 to 8 letters, numbers, and special characters) and multiple words without spaces, such as "bestjetpilot".
"bestjetpilot" is really not a good password so it's just as well that, as Hunt discovered, attempts to change passwords to “bestjetpilot” are rejected as invalid.
eBay sensibly points out that users should avoid normal dictionary word like "kangaroo" but the "dictionary" passwords sniffed out by hackers, which is the issue at hand, contain "words" such as 123456 and perhaps “bestjetpilot” that don't appear in the OED, so its thinking here is flawed. The faulty guidance about “bestjetpilot” as a good password appears on the ebay.com.au domain’s password page – but doesn’t appear on the .com or .co.uk pages, as Hunt points out.
Even so, "eBay has some work to do with how it communicates and implements passwords", Hunt concludes.
Advising on what is - and what isn't - a strong password is perhaps trickier than it might seem. For example, the World Password Day website featured a password strength meter that rated “password123456” as strong.
It obviously isn't.
We understand that the tool recognised the combination of letters and numbers as being “strong” and a deliberate decision was taken not to connect it to an extensive dictionary database in order to keep code on the site simple.
Getting people to change their eBay passwords may be trickier than it seems. A recent online survey of 268,000 consumers by anti-virus firm Avast shows that nine out of ten people intended to change their passwords after Heartbleed, but only 40 per cent actually took action. ®