There are so many awful things in the story of what happened this week to technology journalist Matt Honan that it's hard to know where to start. The fundamental part - that through not particularly clever social engineering an outsider was able in about 20 minutes to take over and delete his Google account, take over and defame his Twitter account, and then wipe all the data on his iPhone, iPad, and MacBook - would make a fine nightmare, or maybe a movie with some of the surrealistic quality of Martin Scorsese's After Hours (1985). And all, as Honan eventually learned, because the hacker fancied an outing with his three-digit Twitter ID, a threat so unexpected there's no way you'd make it your model.
Honan's first problem was the thing Suw Charman-Anderson put her finger on for an Infosecurity Magazine piece I did earlier this year: gaining access to a single email address to which every other part of your digital life - ecommerce accounts, financial accounts, social media accounts, password resets all over the Web - is locked puts you in for "a world of hurt". If you only have one email account you use for everything, given access to it, an attacker can simply request password resets all over the place - and then he has access to your accounts and you don't. There are separate problems around the fact that the information required for resets is both the kind of stuff people disclose without thinking on social networks and commonly reused. None of this requires fancy technology fix, just smarter, broader thinking
There are simple solutions to the email problem: don't use one email account for everything and, in the case of Gmail, use two-factor authentication. If you don't operate your own server (and maybe even if you do) it may be too complicated to create a separate address for every site you use, but it's easy enough to have a public address you use for correspondence, a private one you use for most of your site accounts, and then maybe a separate, even less well-known one for a few selected sites that you want to protect as much as you can.
Honan's second problem, however, is not so simple to fix unless an incident like this commands the attention of the companies concerned: the interaction of two companies' security practices that on their own probably seemed quite reasonable. The hacker needed just two small bits of information: Honan's address (sourced from the Whois record for his Internet domain name), and the last four digits of a credit card number, The hack to get the latter involved adding a credit card to Honan's Amazon.com account over the phone and then using that card number, in a second phone call, to add a new email address to the account. Finally, you do a password reset to the new email address, access the account, and find the last four digits of the cards on file - which Apple then accepted, along with the billing address, as sufficient evidence of identity to issue a temporary password into Honan's iCloud account.
This is where your eyes widen. Who knew Amazon or Apple did any of those things over the phone? I can see the point of being able to add an email address; what if you're permanently locked out of the old one? But I can't see why adding a credit card was ever useful; it's not as if Amazon did telephone ordering. And really, the two successive calls should have raised a flag.
The worst part is that even if you did know you'd likely have no way to require any additional security to block off that route to impersonators; telephone, cable, and financial companies have been securing telephone accounts with passwords for years, but ecommerce sites do not (or haven't) think of themselves as possible vectors for hacks into other services. Since the news broke, both Amazon and Apple have blocked off this phone access. But given the extraordinary number of sites we all depend on, the takeaway from this incident is that we ultimately have no clue how well any of them protect us against impersonation. How many other sites can be gamed in this way?
Ultimately, the most important thing, as Jack Schofield writes in his Guardian advice column is not to rely on one service for everything. Honan's devastation was as complete as it was because all his devices were synched through iCloud and could be remotely wiped. Yet this is the service model that Apple has and that Microsoft and Google are driving towards. The cloud is seductive in its promises: your data is always available, on all your devices, anywhere in the world. And it's managed by professionals, who will do all the stuff you never get around to, like make backups.
But that's the point: as Honan discovered to his cost, the cloud is not a backup. If all your devices are hooked to it, it is your primary data pool, and, as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak pointed out this week it is out of your control. Keep your own backups, kids. Develop multiple personalities. Be careful out there.