Scientists have built a tool to protect websites from hackers, based on monitoring of email activity linked to them.
The tool, called Tripwire, resulted from an 18-month study by a team at University of California San Diego. It was presented last month at the ACM Internet Measurement Conference in London.
The researchers found that a number of the websites studied had been hacked, including one with 45 million active customers. But the affected companies did not reveal the breaches to their customers, and the team will not so because the firms had not volunteered for the study.
To conduct the research, the scientists developed a bot that created and registered accounts on 2,300 high-traffic websites. They then set up unique email accounts, using the same password for those and for the website accounts.
If an outside party used the password to access the email account, this showed that account information had been leaked.
The team also set up a control group consisting of over 100,000 email accounts. These addresses were not used for registering on websites.
The purpose was to make sure the breach was related to hacking, and not the fault of the email provider or their infrastructure.
The researchers determined that 19 websites had been hacked, including that of a well-known American startup. In total, almost 1% had suffered a data breach, regardless of size and reach—an unacceptable risk.
"No one is above this — companies or nation states — it's going to happen; it's just a question of when," states Alex C. Snoeren, the paper's senior author and a professor of computer science at the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California San Diego.
The team advises consumers to not reuse passwords, to use a password manager and to be stingy with data.
"Websites ask for a lot of information," Snoeren says. "Why do they need to know your mother's real maiden name and the name of your dog?"