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Blizzard Entertainment’s 2012 Hack: An Example of How to Do It Right

In 2012, game developers were beginning to experiment with a principle known as “always on”. “Always on” had many potential benefits, but the downsides keep the majority of games from ever attempting it. Many of the notable standouts are games that require team play, like Fall Guys or Overwatch. Others without main-campaign team play tend to fall behind, like Diablo 3 and some of the Assassin’s Creed games. Lag, insecurities, perpetual updating, etc. are all very annoying to the end user, so they’ll only tolerate it where it’s needed, like those team games. It’s hard to say that this hack wouldn’t have happened if Blizzard hadn’t switched to an “always on” system… but some of their users only had accounts because of the always-on.

Blizzard’s account system was designed with their larger, team games in mind. It was forwards facing, and internet speeds were getting better by the day. Users were just going to have to put up with it, they thought. Users grumbled about it, but ultimately Blizzard was keeping data in good hands at the time. You wouldn’t expect accounts created purely to play Diablo 3 to lose less data than the user profiles in the Equifax breach, right? Blizzard didn’t drop the ball here! What did Blizzard do right to prevent a mass-meltdown?

Hacker’s Lament


The long and the short of it was that Blizzard’s stuff had multiple redundancies in place to A) keep hackers out and B) make the info useless even if it did end up in the wrong hands. Millions of people had lost data in similar events before, and security experts were more and more crucial to keeping entertainment data safe. Blizzard was preparing for the worst and hoping for the best, so even when the worst struck here, they were prepared.

The actual hack was defined by Blizzard as ‘illegal access to our internal servers’. It released the listed emails of players (excluding China), the answers to security questions, and other essential identifying information about accounts into the wild. However, due to Blizzard’s long-distance password protocol, the passwords themselves were scrambled so much that the hackers might as well have been starting from scratch. This is still a problem, but it’s not a world-ending, ‘everyone has your credit card’ problem. Changing the password on the account and enabling 2FA was considered enough to shore up security.


Potential Issues


Lost email addresses aren’t as big of a problem as lost passwords, but they can still present an issue. Now that the hacker knows an email address was used on a particular site, it’s possible to perform a dictionary attack, or regular brute forcing! This strategy will eventually work, but the longer and more complicated the password is, the less likely it is to succeed on your account in particular.

A secondary problem is the lost security questions. Those are a form of 2FA. Depending on the question asked, guessing something that works or brute forcing it again is dangerously easy. Sparky, Rover, and Spot are very popular names for American dogs, for example. If the hacker is able to identify that the player’s American, and then guess the name of their first dog, they’re in! They can change the password to keep the legitimate player out. (Part of Blizzard’s response is forcing users to change their security questions for this reason). 2FA that uses email or mobile is generally preferred. acted as an overarching account for all the games, and made the stakes higher for an account breach. All the online Blizzard games went through Losing access could mean losing access to hundreds of hours of game progress. Or worse: credit card data and personal info.


Online, Always, Forever


The event provided ammo for anti-always-on arguments. There was no option to not have a account if you wanted to just play Diablo’s latest game. Some users were only vulnerable as a result of the always-online system. If they’d simply been allowed to play it offline, with no special account to maintain that always-online standard, there wouldn’t have been anything to hack! Previous Blizzard games didn’t require People who stopped at Diablo 2 seem to have gotten off scot-free during the hack. This is annoying to many users who only wanted to play Diablo 3. They might not find value in anything else about the system. Why bother making users go through all this work to be less secure?

When discussing always online, there’s good arguments to be made for both sides. Generally, always on is better for the company, where offline gaming is better for the consumer. Always on helps prevent pirating, and it gives live data. Companies need data on bugs or player drop-off times, which can help them plan their resources better and organize fixes without disrupting the player experience.

On the other hand, consumers with poor internet are left out, as lag and bugs caused by poor connection destroy their gaming experience. As games move more and more to pure digital, buying a ‘used game’ only gets more difficult for the consumer. Companies treat purchased games as a ticket to a destination, rather than an object the consumer buys. Games used to be objects, where anybody could play the game on the disc even though save data stayed on the console. Buying access to Diablo 3 via means that there’s no way to share that access without also allowing other people to access the account, which stores the save data. It’s the equivalent of sharing the console, not just the disc.




The response to the stolen, scrambled passwords was for Blizzard to force-reset player passwords and security questions, just in case the hackers somehow managed to unscramble them.

2FA is always a good idea, and Blizzard strongly recommended it too. 2FA will do a better job of alerting you than the default email warning  ‘your password has been changed’ will after the fact. After you’ve received that email, the hacker is already in. Depending on when you noticed, they could have already harvested all the data and rare skins they wanted by the time you get your support ticket filed! Setting up 2FA first means that you’re notified before that happens.

All in all, Blizzard handled this particular incident well! Companies are required to inform their users about potential online breaches, but some companies do this with less tact than others. Formally issuing an apology for the breach isn’t part of their legal requirements, for example. What made this response possible in the first place was Blizzard’s competent security team, alongside a set of policies that were strictly followed. Logs and audits in the system ensured that Blizzard knew who accessed what and when, which is critical when forming a response. Blizzard was able to determine the extent of the problem and act on it quickly, the ultimate goal of any IT response.




The Former CEO of LifeLock: “Mistakes Were Made”.

If you were looking for better identity protection following a string of massive data breach events in the early 2000s, you might have seen the ads for LifeLock. Lifelock is a company that – while still in business today– was forced to pay 100 million dollars in a class action lawsuit for misleading advertising. Most people will likely remember something else about Lifelock, though. The CEO plastered his SSI on a billboard and then had his identity stolen.

A joke about Lifelock posting his SSN on a billboard.

What’s so Dark About the Dark Web?

The Dark Web is called the Dark Web because the pages are ‘dark’ to search engines. There’s no way for someone to Google an online bank and get the user dashboard without signing in – you may be able to use a link to get to it if you’ve already been there (and it will likely take you to a “Not Found” page if you’re not signed in), but Google doesn’t have access to it directly. The same goes for the vast majority of pages that are only accessible with a user account: they would be literally unusable if certain pages were visible and interact-able to the public.What’s the use of a public shopping cart, and a public payment portal? It’s non-functional.

As such, they remain inaccessible to Google’s search engine. These pages are effectively invisible, and any company that’s smart would like to keep it that way. That’s not the only way to stay off the radar, though, as sometimes things are invisible to Google because the webpage wasn’t indexed. What this all boils down to is that the Dark Web is many things, but first it’s a state of being, rather than a place. This doesn’t mean nothing shady ever happens on un-indexed pages, but it’s really not the majority of what is considered ‘dark’ to Google or Bing.

The Data LifeLock’s Scanning

Part of the appeal of un-indexable pages to criminals is that searching through them is a nightmare. LifeLock claimed to scan through a trillion data points a day – which sounds like a lot because it is. It also claims to patrol the dark web for your data. Since the results of the class action suit are what I’m basing this article on, this feature apparently functions at least as well as they advertise it currently, not back then. But the dark web is huge, and disjointed.

Searching through all that info for just LifeLock customers is difficult. After all, if it were easy, Google would have probably jumped at the opportunity to sell something just like LifeLock: “The World’s Number One Search Engine Can Now Find Your Stolen Data Anywhere”. Even back then, Google was a behemoth. You would need to have access to pages that are legally unfindable by Google, one of the most powerful tech companies in existence, to find stolen data before it becomes a problem. They would need to be digging into some obscure places to get to that data.

However, this wasn’t LifeLock’s only method of defense against criminals. They monitored (and continue to monitor) credit and bank withdrawals with user-set alarms – on their website, they also advertise alerting for address changes on certain accounts. However, I’m not sure how old that feature is, given that part of their suit was based around the alert system. These are things that banks themselves have taken over in recent times, and the thrice-annual free credit report acts as a canary for identity theft, so LifeLock’s exclusive features are no longer such a draw.

Former LifeLock CEO Todd Davis: Broken Promises

LifeLock’s methods make a couple of assumptions. One: the fraud is caught immediately as a result of LifeLock’s monitoring, and it doesn’t do significant damage to the customer’s life. Two: the information was used or sold somewhere that LifeLock would recognize it. As said before, the dark web is just un-indexed pages. That’s a huge number of pages. There’s a huge number of businesses that only need an SSN and a name to make an account. This will come back to haunt their marketing team later in the story.

Someone wanted to prove to all the naysayers that LifeLock was effective even if everybody had his full name and SSN. Nobody could ding his credit as long as LifeLock was watching his back. Setting up an account with AT&T, with stolen info? Not today! Former LifeLock CEO Todd Davis was confident in his product.

He slapped his SSN and full name up on a billboard. LifeLock Would Protect Him.

It was brazen. It was a tactic used by bulletproof glass manufacturers proving their faith in their product. So, what could have gone wrong, you may ask? What could have costed LifeLock it’s brand identity?

Thieves stole his identity. Not once. Not twice. Thirteen separate times. The number of times his identity was successfully protected don’t really matter when the CEO of LIFELOCK has had his identity successfully stolen thirteen times.

Davis said, “We were trying to make the point that … all it takes is one data breach. The point of that campaign was to take proactive steps to protect your identity.” Take proactive steps. Right. This is obviously a damage control statement! As you can see in the picture above, he is not saying ‘theft could still ruin your life even with LifeLock’. He is inviting people to try to take the data.

LifeLock later settled that class-action lawsuit  from before because of problems with LifeLock’s automated alert system. Civil suits take time – this wasn’t filed as a result of their CEO accidentally proving LifeLock could be overwhelmed or evaded – but it didn’t help their public image.

Well, Former LifeLock CEO Todd Davis, you proved a point. Not even the best of identity-monitoring programs can keep your data out of the hands of thieves… when you tell those thieves that you’re untouchable.

Sources kept as links for convenience: