In the past few days, pastebin.com has been cited in a wide variety of high-profile news sources regarding a “leak” of email account passwords.
This brought a huge surge in visitors, and ensuring I kept the server functioning took up all my available spare time. I wrote a short blog entry which attracted a lot of comments. Things are a little calmer now, so I’m writing this longer post to explain what happened.
This looks like a long post, just tell me my email account wasn’t compromised…
- I do not have copy of the list
- and….I do not have a copy of the list
- just to be clear….I do not have a copy of the list
Microsoft investigated and have frozen the affected accounts on their systems and if you find yourself locked out of your account, fill out their recovery form to regain control.
Aside from that, if you’ve ever entered your email login details into anything but your providers web page, then I recommend you change your password. It’s likely that the leaked list came from a much larger set – just seeing the published isn’t enough to be sure your details have not been compromised.
So, even if you are just a bit concerned, just change your password. Go on. I’ll wait.
All done? Now read on for the gory details….
Sometime prior to October 3rd 2009…
…some unknown bad guys start collecting email addresses and passwords.
We can be pretty sure that they didn’t “hack into” Microsoft or any other major email provider to obtain the passwords. These companies should not actually store your password, they just store a fingerprint of it (what developers call a cryptographic hash).
To extend this analogy to the real world: if you emailed me your fingerprint, I couldn’t tell what you looked like, i.e. I could not reconstruct you just from that fingerprint. However, I could verify your identity if I met you by taking your fingerprint and comparing to the one I had stored.
So, when you log in and send your password, they take the fingerprint of what you entered, and compare with the fingerprint stored in their database.
So if they didn’t hack into a provider, where did they get them?
The most likely, and perhaps surprising, answer is that they simply asked the users for them. For example, they could create an authentic, safe looking site which promises to tell you who has blocked you on MSN Chat – all you need to do is enter your MSN account details.
Some researchers have also suggested the details were harvested by infecting PCs with keylogging software.
Oct 3rd, 04:00 UTC – Bad guys post 10,000 passwords on Pastebin.com
For reasons unknown, our miscreants post a set of hotmail addresses and passwords on the pastebin.com website.
A sharp eyed user spotted the posting, or found it via a Google search, and it reached the attention of a tech news blog called Neowin.
Oct 3rd, 16:45 UTC – post is flagged as abuse
If users spot a post which appears not to belong on pastebin, they can flag it for attention. I check these flagged posts daily, and it’s a very rapid and streamlined process:
The software presents me the first 10 lines of the post, together with a link I can click if I think the post should be deleted. Generally it’s pretty easy to determine if something doesn’t belong, and a list of email addresses and passwords is obviously not going to make the cut.
So, someone spotted the post and flagged it. The next morning, Oct 4th, at 07:29 I saw the first 10 lines, and deleted the post in a heartbeat before realising the true scale of the list which subsequently caught media attention.
Oct 5th – Blog posts gather momentum
After Neowin posted their article on October 5th, interest in the story steadily grew.
Oct 6th – Mainstream media catches the story
I was up early on that day to check on the traffic and see if any special action would be needed. Having read the growing number of news articles I took the following action
- Added additional rules to the content filters on pastebin.com to ensure hotmail addresses could not be posted
- Began searching all existing posts to ensure no further copies remained
Traffic levels were so high that the search was running at a crawl, so I closed the site so the cleanup would complete, and left for my office.
I reopened the site late afternoon UK time, and continue to monitor the traffic to ensure it remained as usable as possible.
OK, so why didn’t you keep a copy?
Let me abuse Pulp Fiction for a moment:
- Jimmie: “Now let me ask you a question, Jules. When you drove in here, did you notice a sign out in front that said, “Email password storage”?”
- Jules: “Jimmie…”
- Jimmie: “Answer the question! Did you see a sign out in front of my house that said “Email password storage”?”
- Jules: “Naw man, I didn’t.”
- Jimmie: “You know why you didn’t see that sign?”
- Jules: “Why?”
- Jimmie: “‘Cause storin’ email passwords ain’t my fuckin’ business!”
Now, if it happens again, I may act differently. Security professionals at some large companies have expressed interest in helping their users if such a list could be made available to them. I’m more interested in enhancing the content filters on pastebin to ensure that text that looks like a list of email addresses is simply rejected.
Even if your email address wasn’t on the list, if you think you’re the kind of person who is prone to phishing scams, just change your password. If you didn’t understand that last sentence, just change your password.
The published list was likely much larger, since it seems it was alphabetically ordered and only got as far as ‘b’. Having possession of that list will not help you determine if your address has been not been compromised.
- The Register wrote an article suggesting that this really wasn’t “news” – I quite agree.
- Researchers have analysed the list and found weak passwords are common (no surprises there) but also that a lot of Spanish names are in the top 20 passwords, suggesting that the credentials were captured from a Spanish-speaking community.
- How to regain control of a Gmail account
Can I ask a question?
Sure! As long as it’s not “is my address on the list?”
@whatever: the vast majority of these new visitors were not my target audience of developers. If I encourage similar posts, why on earth would I want to be associated with a site that publishes password lists?
My e-mail starts with an ‘s’ and has also been hacked this night! 🙁
I changed my password, but am I save now? Or should I close my Hotmail-account and start a new one?
P.S. I can’t imagine I filled in my password anywere else than at my Hotmail-account, so I’m still wondering how they get it… ?!?
This was a very good read. The humor, the information provided, and the wit used to discribe some of it was enough to get chuckles. Keep it up. We all appreciate the efforts of people like you, just doing something they enjoy for the hell of it, and making the world a little smarter in the process. Well, Maybe not the world, but people who pay attention,……Maybe.
Okay my apologies on the graphic words. But there was some msns with kid porn on. I will eventually hand them over to the authorities but first I will track these guys and make them really regret what they are into !
scary but of course the email address owners should have the full responsibility of taking care of their online information, in the first place.
might as well, i practice a monthly password update.
Interesting. This was my current event story for my Business Information Systems class. 🙂 Thanks for the details.
Worth getting this translated into Spanish?
how do i see if my address is on the list? and will i ever be able to get onto my account again? because it wont let me loggin to my facebook account because of the hacker’s hotmail address
@Taylor – if you are frozen out of Facebook, see this page for guidance http://www.facebook.com/help.php?page=797
Content filtering is definitely the wrong way to go. This would become an endless task. What if people start to store their child pr0n urls? Any $evilsite? You get the idea. Content is not your business, you only offer the platform. It’s not your fault all the clueless use easy passwords or write them into faked websites or whatever…
I got my id back thanks 😀
Nice article! I enjoyed to read it.
Greetings from Chile, South America.
Deesn’t phishing happen on a day-to-day basis? Isn’t this the exceptional case where someone for no apparant reason posts the list on pastebin?
Moreover, if I read well, this is a hotmail only issue. Windows users do not have this problem?
my Email id (email@example.com) is Hacked, can u pls let me know how could i get my Email id and password back..its urgent
@deepti: See https://www.google.com/support/accounts/bin/request.py?ara=1&hl=en&contact_type=ara&ctx=ara
Someone is going to make a Virus!
I fould a list!!!
Timestamp when posted: around 1256750603.
my password is hacked, please let me know how can i get my password back. Its urgent pls., pls., pls.
Please give me detail in my new id firstname.lastname@example.org
my password is hacked and someone deleted all my mails. Does anyone has idea to recover Inbox.
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It wasn’t a phishing scam, and the users weren’t stupid. Hotmail was hacked.
Simple as that.
Why is it such a stretch for people that MS, who distribute a vulnerable operating system, could get hacked? One little hole and all that info falls out.
My account was hacked. I’ve had it for 10 years. I wasn’t phished or tricked into logging into somewhere else. Sorry, I’m not copping that. I’m always careful.
Hotmail is to blame.
I heard that most of the accounts were fake and had password like 123456…
I think they were real but just had stupid passwords, like a lot of people do.
I remember when this happened some of the emails and passwords really did work from yahoo gmail to hotmail and aol. but some the paswords that had leaked out had beenc changed either by the owner how did the serect password or the person how saw the email and password
Pero tambiÃ©n el affaire de Hotmail y la publicaciÃ³n de 10000 contraseÃ±as robadas vÃa phishing (
I just found my name, full address and postcode on pastebin! what’s that about?!
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