Expert says shame on SnapChat and Skype for security breach

Editor's note: Chester Wisniewski is a senior security adviser at Sophos Inc., Canada. He researches computer security and privacy issues and is a regular contributor to the Naked Security blog.

(CNN) -- Over the past week, users of two popular Internet messaging companies, SnapChat and Skype, found out their accounts were compromised. SnapChat's 4.6 million users' user names and cell phone numbers were posted online. A hacker group posted messages to Skype's official blog and social media accounts.

These are just the latest in a long list of tech companies that fail to provide adequate protection of their users' personal data.

Do companies that offer free services have an obligation to protect our communications? Yes, absolutely.

SnapChat is an app for phones that allows people to send photos and short videos to friends and promises to delete them once viewed, à la Mission Impossible.

In August 2013, a group of security researchers publicly reported weaknesses in SnapChat's programming interfaces that could allow data exfiltration and manipulation. They withheld the specific details that would enable someone to easily exploit the flaws.

If you're mad at your critics, you might ignore them and quietly fix the flaws. If you're appreciative you might engage them in a dialogue, thank them and work out some time to fix things before telling the public about it.

But it seems the founders of SnapChat chose instead to stick their heads in the sand.

After four months without response, the security researchers grew impatient and decided to publicly disclose the details on Christmas Day, including code they had written that would allow almost anyone to abuse SnapChat's service.

SnapChat then blogged that it knew about the flaws, but was satisfied with the changes it implemented and didn't expect the service to be exploited. The next day someone posted the user names and phone numbers of the 4.6 million SnapChat users that they had extracted using the security weaknesses.

While some can make excuses for SnapChat by saying the company is young, hence inexperienced, a breach is still a breach. Skype, a division of Microsoft, can't even say that.

Skype had the dubious distinction of being the first major Internet company to be compromised in 2014. It is the latest victim of a group called the Syrian Electronic Army, which has targeted numerous media companies over the years, including The Financial Times, BBC, NPR, Associated Press and Reuters.

With more than 3 million followers on Twitter and 27 million "likes" on its Facebook page, you would expect the security of a company like Skype to be carefully managed. How did this so-called electronic army penetrate its defenses? It must have been an extremely sophisticated hack, right?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. The Syrian Electronic Army is famous for using phishing, a simple tool that persuades users to disclose their user names and passwords through cleverly worded e-mails.

The primary defense against phishing, aside from never clicking suspicious links or attachments in e-mails, is to use two-factor authentication. The first factor is something we know, typically a password. By adding a second factor -- something you have such as a phone or special keychain token -- attackers not only must acquire your password, but also gain access to a piece of randomly generated information sent to a physical device.

The social media accounts of Skype that were accessed by the Syrian Electronic Army had optional two-factor authentication available, but it was apparently not enabled by Skype. As a result, Skype's blog featured a headline: "Hacked by Syrian Electronic Army ... Stop Spying!" Similar messages were posted on its Twitter and Facebook pages.

Skype acknowledged in a tweet: "You may have noticed our social media properties were targeted today. No user info was compromised. We're sorry for the inconvenience."

But Snapchat's response to the incident is shameful. The company attempted to justify its mistake and promised it will change the app to allow opting-out of one feature without any acknowledgment of the damage done to its users or even a commitment to fixing the list of problems identified by the researchers.

If this was 2012, I might be a little more forgiving. Back then most services didn't offer protections like two-factor authentication or those protections were not flexible enough to work for social media accounts. But this is 2014. All of these social media services offer protection free, designed to prevent this very type of attack.

Didn't Skype think the 27 million people who "liked" them on Facebook and the more than 3 million people who follow them on Twitter deserve to be protected from potentially malicious posts?

Companies

that can't seem to get enough of our personal information need to be held accountable. The least they can do is be responsible and keep our data safe. The safeguards exist and the tech fixes are not hard. So, what are they waiting for?

For consumers, don't become complacent to the barrage of announcements explaining how another 5 million records were stolen due to negligence. Demand accountability.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chester Wisniewski.

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