At SOFREP, we’re passionate about digital security and privacy. Nick has done an amazing job covering the specifics of encrypted communications. I have attempted to provide an overview of how to establish secure comms in a manner that enables one to rely on commercially available “military-grade” encryption. Our aim is to enhance privacy, protect civil liberties, and prevent unlawful infringement of fundamental rights. But you know this already.

There’s a reason we’re so passionate about digital security and privacy, and it has nothing to do with the upcoming digital security guide that we’re very excited about is for a good reason. Namely, without a solid foundation on which to communicate, one’s mission has zero chance of success. As we saw with the UBL raid, a major key to the success of the operation was operational security (OPSEC). The same holds true for any other traditional or SOF operation.

Similarly, the key to a life relatively unimpeded by crime in the digital age is to practice good OPSEC and digital security hygiene. This becomes all the more critical with the Internet of Things, 5G, and ubiquity of mobile devices. Admittedly, though, ensuring digital safety may look overwhelming from the outside.

We recognize this and are absolutely serious about sharing what we can with you in a digestible manner. Our aim is that you gain a deeper understanding of what the average citizen is up against in today’s digital climate and what it takes to successfully operate within it. When this can be shared with reasonable, hard-working, God-fearing fellow citizens and their families we are talking about positive change!

I was recently contacted by a close family member who asked me, in all seriousness, whether or not I was responsible for trying to hack their email account. Aside from the fact that I am not a hacker, doing so is certainly illegal and would quickly place me on the wrong side of the law.

A quick jaunt to Bosnia

This family member had received an email notification to their backup email address, stating that there was a suspicious log-in attempt with an IP address originating in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Now, despite my proclivity towards travel to faraway lands flowing with milk and honey, I was, in fact, nowhere near Bosnia. I also do not spend my afternoons attempting to illegally access my relatives’ accounts for nefarious purposes. However, this instance presents a great opportunity to highlight how vulnerable some of us are, and how not to conduct ourselves online.

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Thankfully, my relative contacted me for help (after asking if I had done it). Knowing many people have unfortunately had their credentials stolen and made publicly available, I wanted to use my relative as a brief case study to highlight how easy it is to firstly access stolen credentials, and secondly to use them for nefarious purposes.

Evidently, my relative has a Yahoo email account. They also have an email hosted through Gmail. My relative received the above notification that someone had attempted, and failed, to access their Yahoo account, which then prompted Yahoo to contact the back-up email address on file in the form of this security alert.

Establish a quick vulnerability baseline

This prompted my curiosity as to how exposed my relative’s information was online, and what their online signature looked like. There are a number of fairly popular websites established for the purposes of conducting security research of this very sort. One website in particular — Have I Been Pwned — provides a great start point to get a sense of how exposed your specific accounts may be to hacking and criminal interference.

Of note, the amount of publicly available information (PAI) online is absolutely staggering. Cybersecurity is a multi-billion dollar industry for a reason, as is cybercrime! For a reference, we’re talking hundreds of millions of stolen credentials — usernames, emails, and passwords — that are now in the “public” domain and freely accessible to any number of actors.

I conducted a basic search of my relative’s back-up email address which yielded the below results. As you can see, their specific email address had been observed in no fewer than 10 separate data breaches over a period of several years. The longer an email has been “in circulation,” the greater the likelihood of a breach occurring, and the greater the vulnerability.

As we can see, my relative’s email account was observed in the above 10 breaches. This means that their credentials are certainly out “in the wild” waiting to be used by a criminal in an attempt to access their account and conduct criminal activity. And this is what we saw above when they attempted to access my relative’s Yahoo account.

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Diving into the data

After getting a sense of how compromised my relative’s various accounts were — through no fault of their own, mind you — I jumped into the specific datasets to see if I could locate their unique password based on the email address listed in the Yahoo email.

Sure enough, the password was easily located among several collections of stolen datasets that are also available for the purpose of security research such as this. Two particular sites I find useful are Intelligence X and DeHashed. The below screenshot is an example of the data (username/email and password), in plain text (i.e. not encrypted) for me to see alongside thousands and thousands of others.

Not only does this data provide me with the usernames and password of my relative’s original account, but it also occasionally provides me with new emails and passwords to search for. This would allow me to expand my search if I were conducting extensive security research (similar to our OSINT work here on Princess Basmah).

What to do with the password (travel to Bosnia, of course)

Now that I have my relative’s password, I can attempt to use it. Keep in mind, this is extremely illegal except in the case of conducting an authorized, attorney-approved penetration test — which this isn’t. This is no doubt what the potential hackers attempted when they tried to access my relative’s account using publicly available credentials stolen from the various companies my relative uses.

Had their attempt worked, they would have gained unauthorized access to my relative’s account. This would provide them with an additional attack surface they could use to pivot to another nefarious act, such as taking over a social media account, resetting my relative’s bank password, locking them out of the account, and any other number of things. As we’ve preached before, simply look into a “SIM swap attack” and use that as your creative template for how that could be applied to taking over social media accounts, bank accounts, other emails, and how it could affect other family members, etc.

The key takeaways

So you don’t want this to happen to you? Got it. Few people do. Thankfully, the fix is unbelievably easy. The question of a breach happening and your credentials being stolen is truly not if, but when. Therefore, good digital security hygiene is really all it takes to minimize your vulnerabilities, limit attack surface, and press on with your life of freedom.

The first thing to do to avoid this type of incident is to not use the same password across multiple accounts. Yes, this may seem fairly obvious, but using one password for multiple accounts is far more common that we’d like to admit. The cost of security is convenience. And what’s more inconvenient than having to remember 50 different, unique, complex passwords (all with numbers, characters, and at least one capital letter)? I’ve busted at least two intelligent and capable relatives using the same password to log in across all of their accounts. Thankfully I noticed it before the bad guys got around to trying it first.

Fortunately, there’s a free fix for that: use a password manager. Password managers allow users to store their unique account passwords in one location, thereby removing the need to remember all of your unique account information. Yes, this presents some distinct vulnerabilities in its own right, but it’s far better than giving an attacker access to all of your accounts by recycling the same password. Do some research on your own on password managers and make the call if it’s worth implementing for your own daily digital routine.

We’re going to keep covering topics like this, and look forward to your thoughts on them. We can’t emphasize enough how critical data security is to all of life’s adventures, be they military or intelligence operations, or just everyday life.

Thanks for listening.