Herbert Thompson, computer science professor at Columbia University, recently shared his experience on Scientific American about how he cracked someone’s identity and got into her bank account in just a few hours of web searches.
SmartPlanet sums up the seven steps he took:
- Google search. He googles her. Finds a blog and a resume. (Thompson called her blog a “goldmine.”) He gets information about grandparents, pets, hometown. Most important he gets her college email address and current gmail address.
- Next stop: Password recovery feature on her bank’s web site. He attempts to reset her bank password. But the bank sends a reset link to her email, which he does not have access to. So he needs to get access to her gmail.
- Gmail access. He attempts to reset her gmail password but gmail sends this to her college email address. Gmail tells you this address’ domain (at least it did in 2008 when Thompson conducted the experiments) so he knew he had to get access to that specific address.
- College email account page. Thompson clicks the “forgot password” link on this page and winds up facing a few questions. Home address, home zip code and home country? No problem, Thompson has it all from her resume. The same resume found from the simple google search done earlier. Then came a stumbling block: the college wanted her birthday. But he only had a rough idea of her age, no actual birth date.
- State traffic court web site. Apparently you can search for violations and court appearances by name! And such records include a birth date. (Facebook also makes this piece of data very easy to get even if people do not note their birth year…remember Thompson knew roughly how old Kim was.) But he had no luck with the Department of Motor Vehicles.
- Thompson goes back to the blog and does a search for “birthday.” He gets a date but no year.
- Finally, Thompson attempts the college reset password again. He fills in her birth date, and simply guesses the year. He gets it wrong. But the site gives him five chances, and tells him which field has the error. So he continues to guess. He gets access in under five guesses. He changes her college password. This gives him access to her gmail password reset email. Google requires some personal information which he is able to get easily from her blog (e.g., father’s middle name.) Thompson changes the gmail password and that gives him access to the bank account reset password email. Here again he is asked for personal information but nothing that he could not glean from Kim’s blog (e.g., pet name and phone number.) He resets the bank password and bingo, has immediate access to all her records and money.
Thankfully this was an exercise using someone that the professor is connected to, and he has used this opportunity to highlight the problems of personal data and data security, even if we had thought that the things we have posted were inane chatters.
The worrying thing is, with talks of internet access as a ‘fundamental human right’ and internet connections becoming ubiquitous, there is no stopping the intelligent but desperate people who could trawl through the internet for bank details and steal from those who aren’t careful with what they share.