Daily Archives: 2011-04-27

The Sony hack: passwords vs. financial details

Sometime last week, Sony discovered that up to 77 M accounts on its PlayStation Network were compromised. Sony’s network was down for a week before they finally disclosed details yesterday. Unusually, there haven’t yet been any credible claims of responsibility for the hack, so we can only go on Sony’s official statements. The breach included names and addresses, passwords, and answers to personal knowledge questions, and possibly payment details. The risks of leaking payment card numbers are well-known, including fraudulent payment transactions and identity theft. Sony has responded by offering to provide free credit checks for affected customers and notifying major credit ratings bureaus with a list of affected customers. This hasn’t been enough for many critics, including a US Senator.

Still, this is far more than Sony has done regarding the leaked passwords. The risks here are very real—hackers can attempt to re-use the compromised passwords (possibly after inverting hashes using brute-force) at many other websites, including financial ones. There are no disclosure laws here though, and Sony has done nothing, not even disclosing the key technical details of how passwords were stored. The implications are very different if the passwords were stored in cleartext, hashed in a constant manner, or properly hashed and salted. Sony customers ought to know what really happened. Instead, towards the bottom of Sony’s FAQ they trail off mid sentence when discussing the leaked passwords:

Additionally, if you use the same user name or password for your PlayStation Network or Qriocity service account for other [no further text]

As we explored last summer, this is a serious market failure. Sony’s security breach has potentially compromised passwords at hundreds of other sites where its users re-use the same password and email address as credentials. This is a significant externality, but Sony bears no legal responsibility, and it shows. The options are never great once a breach has occurred, but Sony should at a minimum have promptly provided full details about their password storage, gave clear instructions to users to change their password at other sites, and notified at least the email providers of each account holder to instruct a forced password reset. The legal framework surrounding password breaches must catch up to that for financial breaches.