What is your mother’s maiden name? How about your pet’s name? Questions like these were a dark corner of security systems for quite some time. Most security researchers instinctively think they aren’t very secure. But they still have gained widespread deployment as a backup to password-based authentication when email-based identification isn’t available. Free webmail providers, for example, may have no other choice. Unfortunately, because most websites rely on email when passwords fail, and email providers rely on personal knowledge questions, most web authentication is no more secure than personal knowledge questions. This risk has gotten more attention recently, with high profile compromises of Paris Hilton’s phone, Sarah Palin’s email, and Twitter’s corporate Google Documents occurring due to guessed personal knowledge questions.
There’s finally been a surge of academic research into the area in the last five years. It’s been shown, for example, that these questions are easy to look up online, often found in public records, and easy for friends and acquaintances to guess. In a joint work with Mike Just and Greg Matthews from the University of Edinburgh published this week in the proceedings of Financial Cryptography 2010, we’ve examined the more basic question of how secure the underlying answer distributions are to statistical guessing. Put another way, if an attacker wants to do no target-specific work, but just guess common answers for a large number of accounts using population-wide statistics, how well can she do?