Naked celebrity pictures: How safe is your cloud?

  • Wide-scale ‘hack’ of Apple’s iCloud unlikely, probably a more targeted attack
  • If any online service offers you options that increase your security, enable them

Naked celebrity pictures: How safe is your cloud?WE awoke one morning to the entirely unnecessary sight of the personal photos of several celebrities, ranging from the fully-clothed ‘mirror selfies’ to the far more explicit.
Victims include Jennifer Lawrence, Ariana Grande, Kate Upton and Victoria Justice. For obvious reasons, clicking on links to ‘naked celebrity’ photos, or opening email attachments would be a very bad idea right now. You can expect cybercriminals to ride this bandwagon immediately.
The images first surfaced on the infamous 4chan image board where the author is claiming to have much more photographic and even video material, stolen from iCloud accounts and for sale to the highest bidder.
Of course, the release of the photos has also prompted a rash of fake images, but the reality of many of these images, confirmed in some cases by the victim’s agents, poses an uncomfortable question for anyone using iCloud – and indeed anyone who has anything they would rather keep private: Is my cloud storage safe?

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A wide-scale ‘hack’ of Apple’s iCloud is unlikely, and even the original poster is not claiming that. The fact that certain celebrities are involved and the nature of the stolen material make this seem far more targeted.
So how could it have happened?

  1. (Least likely) All the celebrities affected had weak, easy to guess, passwords. The hacker simply worked them out and logged in.
  1. If the attackers already knew the email address which the victim is using for iCloud, then they could have used the ‘I forgot my password’ link, assuming that the victim had not enabled two-factor authentication for iCloud. Without two-factor authentication (2FA), the password reset uses the traditional ‘security question’ method. The peril in this for celebrities is that much of their personal information is already online and a security question such as ‘Name of my first pet’ may be a lot less of a secret for a celebrity than it is for you and I.
  1. The attacker broke into another connected account with weaker security or password, perhaps a webmail account that is used to receive password reset emails sent by iCloud.
  1. Password reuse. Too many people are happy to reuse the same password across multiple services. With so many people affected by recent high-profile mega-breaches, simple lookup services for stolen credentials and the number of details for sale online have skyrocketed, while at the same time the price of stolen data has tumbled through oversupply. Of course, if the victim is using the same password for iCloud as for another, already-compromised or easily-compromised service, the doors to iCloud are opened.
  1. Phishing. It’s old school but it still works. A targeted phishing mail sent to a number of celebrities, enticing them to enter their iCloud credentials onto a fake login page, would do the job just as well as any more complex hack.

What are the lessons here for all of us?

  1. If any online service is offering you options that increase your security, enable them. Even if you feel that turning on two-factor authentication may be slightly more inconvenient for you when logging in, I’m willing to bet that a compromise of a service at the heart of your digital life will be considerably more so.
  1. Do not reuse passwords: It is never a good idea to use the same password across multiple websites, so try to have a unique one for every site you use – or better yet, use a Password Manager which offers you the convenience of only having to remember a single password with the security of unique passwords for every service.
  1. As for those security or password reset questions, consider whether the answers are really secure. Secure means that you are the only person who can answer the question. If the possibility exists to create your own questions, use it. If you are obliged to answer more standard questions such as ‘first school’ or ‘first pet,’ remember the answer doesn’t have to be the truth, it only has to be something you can remember.
  1. Deleted may not always mean deleted, as some of these victims are discovering. Familiarise yourself with the online services you use, find out if backups or shadow copies are taken and how they can be managed. In this case, it seems that some of the victims may have believed that deleting the photos from their phones was enough, perhaps forgetting about Apple’s Photo Stream.

Rik Ferguson, global vice president of Security Research at Trend Micro, is an advisor to the EU Safer Internet Forum, a project leader with Europol at the International Cyber Security Prevention Alliance, advisor to various UK government technology forums, and more. In April 2011, he was inducted into the Infosecurity Hall of Fame.
Related Stories:
Privacy isn’t dead, you’re just doing it wrong
F-Secure takes on US-based cloud services with younited
Security on the cloud: Myths dispelled
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