Webmail data leak hype deflated

Posted by   Virus Bulletin on   Oct 9, 2009

Rumoured phishing explosion grabs headlines, reality much more mundane.

This week has seen some major news organisations picking up on the story of tens of thousands of sets of webmail access data appearing online, with rumours of a major and highly effective phishing campaign - possibly targeting children - rife across the web. As the initial shouting dies down however, more sober voices have pointed to the probability that much of the data was harvested by malware, and the scale of the data has been shown to be far from spectacular.

The start of the week saw reports from several major news organisations on the discovery of a list of over 10,000 usernames and passwords for Microsoft's Hotmail, the most popular webmail service worldwide. Later reports indicated that the trove covered only the beginning of the alphabet, implying the existence of much more stolen data, and showed that data from other webmail services including Google's Gmail and Yahoo! webmail had also been posted. The stolen credentials were being used to send out spam, mostly promoting highly suspicious online shopping sites.

Initial suggestions that a major phishing campaign had tricked millions of users into handing over their passwords were swiftly followed with wild rumours that the Windows Live system may have been breached and all user data taken. Some analysts observed that many of the usernames and passwords appeared to belong to children, and further rumours started suggesting that the leaks had come from a social networking site popular with children.

As the hype began to calm and this mists began to clear, some more level-headed and insightful experts pointed out that the data represents a tiny fraction of the total of stolen webmail data, and that all webmail services have been prime targets of phishing for many years, as well as being targeted by keyloggers and other data-theft malware. The 'massive phishing attack' heralded by some quickly faded as the data was revealed to be just a tiny part of the massive international trade in stolen personal data.

The mystery of just why the details were made freely available, rather than sold to the highest bidder for spamming purposes, remains unclear.

Initial news reports on the data trove are at the BBC website here, on the Washington Post blog here and here or in The Register here. Later analysis putting the story straight is available from a Trend Micro blog here, from Mary Landesman at ScanSafe here, and again in The Register here. Some interesting analysis of the data, showing the most popular passwords in common use to be fairly weak, is at Sophos here.

Posted on 09 October 2009 by Virus Bulletin

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