How Easy is it to Hack a Password

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When you hear “security breach,” what springs to mind? A malevolent hacker sitting in front of screens with Matrix digital text streaming down? Or a basement dwelling teenager who hasn’t seen daylight in three weeks? How about a powerful supercomputer attempting to hack the entire world?

The reality is that all of those situations can come down to one simple facet: the humble — but vital — password. If someone has your password, it is essentially game over. If your password is too short, or easily guessed, it is game over. And when there is a security breach, you can guess what nefarious people search for on the dark net. That’s right. Your password.

1. Dictionary

First up in the common password hacking tactics guide is the dictionary attack. Why is it called a dictionary attack? Because it automatically tries every word in a defined “dictionary” against the password. The dictionary isn’t strictly the one you used in school. No. This dictionary is actually a small file that will also contain the most commonly used password combinations, too. That includes 123456, qwerty, password, mynoob, princess, baseball, and all-time classic, hunter2.

2. Brute Force

Next, we consider a brute force attack, whereby an attacker tries every possible character combination. Attempted passwords will match the specifications for the complexity rules e.g. including one upper-case, one lower-case, decimals of Pi, your pizza order, and so on. A brute force attack will also try the most commonly used alphanumeric character combinations first, too. These include the previously listed passwords, as well as 1q2w3e4r5t, zxcvbnm, and qwertyuiop.

3. Phishing

This isn’t strictly a “hack,” but falling prey to a phishing or spear phishing attempt will usually end badly. General phishing emails send by the billions to all manner of internet users around the globe.

A phishing email generally works like this:

  1. Target user receives a spoofed email purporting to be from a major organization or business
  2. Spoofed email requires immediate attention, featuring a link to a website
  3. Link to the website actually links to a fake login portal, mocked up to appear exactly the same as the legitimate site
  4. The unsuspecting target user enters their login credentials, and is either redirected, or told to try again
  5. User credentials are stolen, sold, or used nefariously (or both!).

Despite some extremely large botnets going offline during 2016, by the end of the year spam distribution had increased fourfold [IBM X-Force PDF, Registration]. Furthermore, malicious attachments rose at an unparalleled rate, as per the image below.

4. Social Engineering

Social engineering is somewhat akin to phishing in the real world, away from the screen. Read my short, basic example below (and here are some more to watch out for!).

A core part of any security audit is gauging what the entire workforce understand. In this case, a security company will phone the business they are auditing. The “attacker” tells the person on the phone they are the new office tech support team, and they need the latest password for something specific. An unsuspecting individual may hand over the keys to the kingdom without a pause for thought. The scary thing is how often this actually works. Social engineering has existed for centuries. Being duplicitous in order to gain entry to secure area is a common method of attack, and one that is only guarded against with education. This is because the attack won’t always ask directly for a password. It could be a fake plumber or electrician asking for entry to a secure building, and so on.

Rainbow Table

A rainbow table is usually an offline password attack. For example, an attacker has acquired a list of user names and passwords, but they’re encrypted. The encrypted password is hashed. This means it looks completely different from the original password. For instance, your password is (hopefully not!) logmein. The known MD5 hash for this password is  “8f4047e3233b39e4444e1aef240e80aa.” Gibberish to you and I. But in certain cases, the attacker will run a list of plaintext passwords through a hashing algorithm, comparing the results against an encrypted password file. In other cases, the encryption algorithm is vulnerable, and a majority of passwords are already cracked, like MD5 (hence why we know the specific hash for “logmein.” This where the rainbow table really comes into its own. Instead of having to process hundreds of thousands of potential passwords and matching their resulting hash, a rainbow table is a huge set of precomputed algorithm specific hash values. Using a rainbow table drastically decreases the time it takes to crack a hashed password — but it isn’t perfect. Hackers can purchase prefilled rainbow tables filled with millions of potential combinations.

6. Malware/Keylogger

Another sure way to lose your login credentials is to fall foul of malware. Malware is everywhere, with the potential to do massive damage. If the malware variant features a keylogger, you could find all of your accounts compromised. Alternatively, the malware could specifically target private data, or introduce a remote access Trojan to steal your credentials.


Spidering ties into the dictionary attack we covered earlier. If a hacker is targeting a specific institution or business, they might try a series of passwords relating to the business itself. The hacker could read and collate a series of related terms — or use a search spider to do the work for them.

You might have heard the term “spider” before. These search spiders are extremely similar to those that crawl through the internet, indexing content for search engines. The custom word list is then used against user accounts in the hope of finding a match.

So, how do you stop a hacker stealing your password? The really short answer is that you cannot truly be 100% safe. But you can mitigate your exposure to vulnerability.

One thing is for sure: using strong, unique single use passwords never hurt anyone — and they’ve definitely saved helped, on more than one occasion.

What is your password protection routine? Do you always use strong single use passwords? What’s your password manager of choice? These are things you need to think about and start doing now!