A Two-Decade Retrospective Analysis of a University's Vulnerability to Attacks Exploiting Reused Passwords

Alexandra Nisenoff,Maximilian Golla,Miranda Wei,Juliette Hainline, Hayley Szymanek, Annika Braun,Annika Hildebrandt, Blair Christensen, David Langenberg,Blase Ur


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Credential-guessing attacks often exploit passwords that were reused across a user's online accounts. To learn how organizations can better protect users, we retrospectively analyzed our university's vulnerability to credential-guessing attacks across twenty years. Given a list of university usernames, we searched for matches in both data breaches from hundreds of websites and a dozen large compilations of breaches. After cracking hashed passwords and tweaking guesses, we successfully guessed passwords for 32.0% of accounts matched to a university email address in a data breach, as well as 6.5% of accounts where the username (but not necessarily the domain) matched. Many of these accounts remained vulnerable for years after the breached data was leaked, and passwords found verbatim in breaches were nearly four times as likely to have been exploited (i.e., suspicious account activity was observed) than tweaked guesses. Over 70 different data breaches and various username-matching strategies bootstrapped correct guesses. In surveys of 40 users whose passwords we guessed, many users were unaware of the risks to their university account or that their credentials had been breached. This analysis of password reuse at our university provides pragmatic advice for organizations to protect accounts.
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