Cybersecurity has become more crucial than ever in our increasingly digital world. As more of our personal and professional data is stored online, there is an added risk of that data being compromised through hacking. Understanding the latest hacking tools and techniques is critical for protecting against them.
This extensive article will examine 10 of the most widely used password-hacking tools in depth. It will analyze how they work, real-world examples of high-profile breaches, and, most importantly, best practices for mitigating their risk.
While this information is meant to educate, these tools should not be used for illegal or unethical purposes.
The Growing Threat of Password Hacking
Before diving into specific tools, it's important to understand the scope and severity of the password-hacking threat landscape. In 2022 alone, there were several high-profile password breaches across sectors:
- In September 2022, a hacker accessed Uber's internal systems through an employee's compromised password. They then accessed sensitive operational data impacting nearly 60 million riders and drivers.
- Facebook/Instagram - In August 2022, a software bug accidentally exposed millions of users' passwords stored in plain text internally. While no hack was behind this incident, it highlights vulnerabilities.
- RockYou2021 - 1.5 billion compromised passwords from old breaches were circulated on hacker forums in January 2022. Most were years old but still included commonly used passwords.
These are just a few examples highlighting how prevalent password hacking continues. Verizon's 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report found that 82% of breaches involved a human element like stolen credentials.
The ease of access to powerful password-hacking tools contributes greatly to this trend.
Motivations Behind Password Hacking
Password hacking is driven by various motivations, from criminal profit to espionage to hacktivism. Some schools of thought would argue that a lot can be gained from hacking; outlined below are some of the analyzed reasons people gave for choosing to hack.
- Financial Gain - Compromised accounts can enable theft of payment data, selling of personal information, fraudulent wire transfers, and more. Nearly half of the breaches are financially motivated.
- Ideological Hacktivism - Activist groups like Anonymous have used password hacking to make political statements and expose organizations they disagree with.
- Espionage - State-sponsored groups target government and military passwords for intelligence gathering and sabotage.
- Cyberwarfare - Nations build cyber armies to infiltrate and disrupt enemy systems during war, using password hacking to gain access.
- Revenge - Disgruntled insiders or those with personal vendettas may hack former employers or partners.
- Notoriety & Ego - Bragging rights provide motivation for some "black hat" hackers.
Consequences of Password Breaches
The potential damage from a password breach cannot be overstated. Depending on the system compromised, consequences can include:
- Data theft - Prime targets are personal, financial, medical, intellectual property, and other sensitive records. This data can be sold on the dark web or used directly for identity fraud or insider trading.
- System disruption - Gained credentials provide access that can be used to corrupt or destroy data and systems, inflicting damage and disruption.
- Compliance violations - Breaches that expose regulated data like healthcare records or financial information lead to costly compliance violations.
- Lawsuits & Legal Action - Organizations that suffer breaches due to negligence often face massive class-action lawsuits and regulatory investigations.
- Reputation harm - The PR damage and loss of consumer trust following a major breach can hobble organizations for years afterward.
Types of Password Attacks
Now that the stakes are clear let's examine the most common types of password attack techniques used to compromise credentials:
Brute Force Attacks
Perhaps the most straightforward password attack, the brute force technique, tries every possible password combination until the correct one is discovered.
Modern brute force tools like Hydra and Hashcat can cycle through endless password permutations at incredible speeds by distributing efforts across hundreds or thousands of systems.
To comprehend the danger, consider that an 8-character password with upper, lower, and special characters has 218,340,105,584,896 possible combinations. At 1 million guesses per second, a password-cracking cluster can run through all possibilities in under 3 days.
Some major brute force attacks include:
- Yahoo breach (2013-2014) - 3 billion accounts were compromised by brute-forcing passwords hashed with the weak MD5 algorithm.
- LinkedIn breach (2016) - 117 million passwords cracked from leaked hashes using massive brute force efforts.
- Ashley Madison breach (2015) - Brute force cracking of hashed passwords exposed 39 million users of the affair site.
To protect against brute force attempts, complex random passwords over 12 characters in length are recommended, along with multi-factor authentication (MFA). Speed throttling and IP blacklisting after failed attempts can also help stymie these attacks.
Rather than trying every possible password, dictionary attacks only attempt passwords from a pre-compiled list. This includes real dictionary words, common phrases, and passwords from past breach databases like RockYou2021. This focused approach requires far fewer guesses than a pure brute-force attack.
Popular dictionary attack tools include Cain & Abel and John the Ripper, which come loaded with sophisticated password dictionaries based on real-world password studies. Rulesets can also modify and combine dictionary words to greatly expand the keyspace of possible passwords.
Major incidents tied to dictionary attacks include:
- iCloud celebrity photo hack (2014) - Simple and common passwords allowed hackers to access celebrity iCloud accounts and steal private photos.
- Sony Pictures breach (2014) - Attackers could match passwords against dictionaries to gain access and leak sensitive data, wreaking massive damage.
- LinkedIn breach (2016) - Although brute force was used initially, most passwords were eventually cracked via huge dictionaries.
To guard against dictionary attacks, avoid common words, phrases, and patterns as passwords. Also, change passwords immediately if your provider notifies you of any potential compromise.
Social Engineering Attacks
Social engineering targets the human element rather than directly attacking the technology securing passwords. These techniques manipulate users through psychological tricks to willingly give up credentials or other sensitive data.
- Phishing - Fraudulent emails, sites, ads, chats, calls, etc., impersonate trusted sources to trick users into entering passwords or downloading malware.
- Baiting - Malware-infected USB drives are left in public areas, hoping people will plug them in out of curiosity, allowing access to systems and passwords.
- Pretexting - Hackers invent scenarios and impersonate roles like IT support to convince users to share access or reset passwords.
- Tailgating - Follow authorized people into restricted areas without proper credentials to gain physical access to systems and data.
Major incidents enabled by social engineering include:
- Twitter hack (2020) - Phone spoofing and social engineering of Twitter employees led to high-profile account takeovers.
- Adobe breach (2013) - Phishing emails sent to employees allowed hackers to gain network access and steal 150 million user records.
- RSA breach (2011) - Phishing successfully targeted RSA employees and stole data in SecureID tokens, enabling further high-profile hacks.
Ongoing security awareness training is key to inoculating organizations against social engineering. Enabling MFA is also crucial, requiring another step beyond entering a password.
Password Guessing Attacks
Another more targeted technique involves using personal information about the victim to guess their passwords or answers to security questions. Birthdays, anniversaries, pet names, and other data points can provide fodder for password guessing, especially when users rely on this info for credential security.
For example, a spouse could guess "SamR1977" because the target's name is Sam Robinson, and they were born in 1977. Apps like Semaphore simplify automating password guesses by collecting personal info from social media and databases.
Major incidents enabled by password guessing include:
- Mat Honan Twitter hack (2012) - Birthdate and other personal info were used to reset Honan's iCloud password and take over his Twitter account.
- Sarah Palin email hack (2008) - Publicly available info like her birthdate and zip code gave hints that allowed hackers to guess her password.
Avoid using any personal information in passwords. Also, be wary of oversharing personal details online or via social engineering attempts. Using randomized passwords stored in a password manager can provide protection even if personal details are known.
One of the sneakiest ways to capture passwords is via keylogging, which records the keystrokes entered on a keyboard. This allows hackers to intercept passwords and other information as it's typed in real-time.
Keyloggers can be installed via malware attached to phishing emails or drive-by downloads on malicious sites. Hardware keyloggers also physically plug into a keyboard cable or USB port to capture strokes. Some advanced malware can even record strokes on virtual and on-screen keyboards.
Major incidents enabled by keylogging include:
- FBI hack (2001) - Keylogger planted by hacker Joseph Konopka captured passwords enabling access to unclassified but sensitive systems.
- HP keylogging scandal (2006) - HP spyware installed on executives' computers recorded keys to monitor internal communications.
- Reddit hack (2018) - Attackers leveraged keylogging malware to gain admin passwords and breach accounts.
Using diligent endpoint protection software and patch management limits the installation of keyloggers. Specialized temporal keylogging detection tools like Antikeylogger actively monitor suspicious logging activity for highly sensitive systems.
Credential Stuffing Attacks
In this approach, vast lists of leaked usernames and passwords from past breaches are plugged into login pages in an automated fashion to infiltrate accounts. With billions of credentials available from breaches like RockYou and LinkedIn, credential stuffing is highly effective at compromising accounts.
Tools like Snipr and BlackBullet automate rapid credential-stuffing attacks across multiple sites. Hundreds of millions of login attempts across banks, retailers, hospitals, and other sites are made daily, looking for a password match.
Major incidents tied to credential stuffing include:
- Canva - 139 million user accounts were compromised in May 2022 using reused credentials from historical breaches.
- MGM Resorts - In February 2020, reused passwords exposed the personal data of over 10 million hotel guests.
- Aadhaar - India's national ID database was breached in 2017 using massive credential stuffing efforts.
Using unique passwords for every site limits the damage credential stuffing can inflict. MFA provides another layer of protection by requiring verification beyond just a correct password. Smart lockout policies can also thwart excessive login attempts.
SQL Injection & Other App Attacks
Hacking tools also exploit vulnerabilities in web applications and APIs to extract passwords or perform unauthorized actions. For example:
- SQL Injection - Inserts malicious SQL queries into input fields like login forms to trick databases into dumping password hashes and other data.
- API exploitation - Finding holes in application programming interfaces allows improper password resets and account takeovers.
Ongoing scanning, patching, and hardening of web and mobile apps is key to limiting vulnerabilities that enable these application-level attacks. Web application firewalls (WAFs) also provide protection against common exploits like SQLi and XSS.
Major incidents enabled by application flaws include:
- British Airways breach (2018) - Attackers leveraged a cross-site scripting vulnerability to extract payment data on over 380,000 customer records.
- Facebook developer API scandal (2018) - Lax oversight allowed thousands of developers to access user account data through the Facebook API improperly.
The Legal and Ethical Aspects
While this article aims to raise awareness of password-hacking techniques, it must highlight that using such tools against systems you do not own is extremely unethical and illegal. Hacking attacks have real victims - individuals, organizations, and society as a whole.
Several laws govern unauthorized access to computers and systems:
- The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is the primary federal law in the U.S. prohibiting unauthorized access to computers and networks. Depending on severity, it carries fines and up to 20 years in prison.
- The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) criminalizes attempts to circumvent access controls and digital rights management systems.
- State laws also penalize unauthorized access, wiretapping, and similar offenses.
Beyond strict legality, hacking has huge ethical costs. At a minimum, it represents a betrayal of trust, like breaking into someone's locked home. It can also enable far more damaging outcomes of identity theft, leaked personal details, stolen IP, etc. There is an individual and social responsibility to use technology ethically.
In this next series of this three-part article, we will take a deep dive into how organizations can protect themselves and implement proper policies that align with world best practices and procedures.