If One of My Passwords Is Compromised Are My Other Passwords Compromised Too?

By Jason Fitzpatrick on December 20th, 2012

If one of your passwords is compromised, does that automatically mean that your other passwords are also compromised? While there are quite a few variables at play, the question is an interesting look at what makes a password vulnerable and what you can do to protect yourself.

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-drive grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader Michael McGowan is curious how far reaching the impact of a single password breach is; he writes:

Suppose a user uses a secure password at site A and a different but similar secure password at site B. Maybe something like mySecure12#PasswordA on site A and mySecure12#PasswordB on site B (feel free to use a different definition of “similarity” if it makes sense).

Suppose then that the password for site A is somehow compromised…maybe a malicious employee of site A or a security leak. Does this mean that site B’s password has effectively been compromised as well, or is there no such thing as “password similarity” in this context? Does it make any difference whether the compromise on site A was a plain-text leak or a hashed version?

Should Michael worry if his hypothetical situation comes to pass?

The Answer

SuperUser contributors helped clear up the issue for Michael. Superuser contributor Queso writes:

To answer the last part first: Yes, it would make a difference if the data disclosed were cleartext vs. hashed. In a hash, if you change a single character, the entire hash is completely different. The only way an attacker would know the password is to brute force the hash (not impossible, especially if the hash is unsalted. see rainbow tables).

As far as the similarity question, it would depend on what the attacker knows about you. If I get your password on site A and if I know you use certain patterns for creating usernames or such, I may try those same conventions on passwords on sites you use.

Alternatively, in the passwords you give above, if I as an attacker see an obvious pattern that I can use to separate a site-specific portion of the password from the generic password portion, I will definitely make that part of a custom password attack tailored to you.

As an example, say you have a super secure password like 58htg%HF!c. To use this password on different sites, you add a site-specific item to the beginning, so that you have passwords like: facebook58htg%HF!c, wellsfargo58htg%HF!c, or gmail58htg%HF!c, you can bet if I hack your facebook and get facebook58htg%HF!c I am going to see that pattern and use it on other sites I find that you may use.

It all comes down to patterns. Will the attacker see a pattern in the site-specific portion and generic portion of your password?

Another Superuser contributor, Michael Trausch, explains how in most situations the hypothetical situation isn’t much cause for concern:

To answer the last part first: Yes, it would make a difference if the data disclosed were cleartext vs. hashed. In a hash, if you change a single character, the entire hash is completely different. The only way an attacker would know the password is to brute force the hash (not impossible, especially if the hash is unsalted. see rainbow tables).

As far as the similarity question, it would depend on what the attacker knows about you. If I get your password on site A and if I know you use certain patterns for creating usernames or such, I may try those same conventions on passwords on sites you use.

Alternatively, in the passwords you give above, if I as an attacker see an obvious pattern that I can use to separate a site-specific portion of the password from the generic password portion, I will definitely make that part of a custom password attack tailored to you.

As an example, say you have a super secure password like 58htg%HF!c. To use this password on different sites, you add a site-specific item to the beginning, so that you have passwords like: facebook58htg%HF!c, wellsfargo58htg%HF!c, or gmail58htg%HF!c, you can bet if I hack your facebook and get facebook58htg%HF!c I am going to see that pattern and use it on other sites I find that you may use.

It all comes down to patterns. Will the attacker see a pattern in the site-specific portion and generic portion of your password?

If you’re concerned that you current password list isn’t diverse and random enough, we highly recommend checking out our comprehensive password security guide: How To Recover After Your Email Password Is Compromised. By reworking your password lists as if the mother of all passwords, your email password, has been compromised, it’s easy to quickly bring your password portfolio up to speed.


Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

 

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 12/20/12
More Articles You Might Like

Enter Your Email Here to Get Access for Free:

Go check your email!