Email As A Master Key: Analyzing Account Recovery In The Wild

Yue Li College of William & Mary, USA
Haining Wang University of Delaware, USA
Kun Sun George Mason University, USA


Account recovery (usually through a password reset) on many websites has mainly relied on accessibility to a registered email due to its favorable deployability and usability. However, it makes a user's online accounts vulnerable to a single point of failure when the registered email account is compromised. While previous research focuses on strengthening user passwords, the security risk imposed by email-based account recovery has not yet been well studied. In this paper, we investigate the possibility of mounting an email-based account recovery attack. Specifically, we examine the account authentication and recovery protocols in 239 traffic-heavy websites, confirming that most of them use emails for account recovery. We further scrutinize the security policy of major email service providers and show that a significant portion of them take no or marginal effort to protect user email accounts, leaving compromised email accounts readily available for mounting account recovery attacks. Then, we conduct case studies to assess potential losses caused by such attacks. Finally, we propose a lightweight email security enhancement called Secure Email Account Recovery (SEAR) to defend against account recovery attacks as an extra layer of protection to account recovery emails.

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