Breaking into Gmail

We'll show you how attackers can steal your Gmail passwords, and how to stop them.

Tom Merritt Former CNET executive editor
3 min read
Recently, Twitter as a hacker obtained quite a bit of confidential information and passed it along to tech news sites. Apparently, the hacker accessed a Twitter employees' Gmail account and used that to gain access to Google Docs, company systems, and more.

Watch this: Break into Gmail
The employee most likely thought they had proper security protections in place. We'll show you how the Gmail account got cracked, and how you can take better care to protect your Gmail account.

Obviously, you should start by picking a strong password that's not a dictionary word or easily guessable. But that password is only as strong as Google's password recovery system. Google allows three methods to recover your password. E-mail, SMS, and the vaunted "security question." Three methods an attacker could use to gain entry to your account.

To check your password recovery options, go to settings, choose Accounts, and click on Google Account Settings. Then click "Change password recovery options."

The e-mail recovery method tripped up the Twitter employee. In this method, if you forget your password, you can specify an e-mail account where a password-reset link can be sent. This is common practice in Web services.

Allegedly, the Twitter employee had their recovery account set to a Hotmail account that was deactivated. The hacker was able to guess what the e-mail had been, reregister the account, and was able to get the password reset link sent to the Hotmail account.

How do you protect yourself against that? Well make sure you have a valid e-mail account listed as your secondary account, and make sure that account has solid security protection. Or better yet, don't use this method. Just leave the secondary e-mail account blank.

You have two other methods to choose from.

Method two is SMS. This is fairly secure, since any attacker would have to get access to your phone, or at least be near enough to intercept text messages to your phone number to steal your password. While this isn't impossible, it's a taller order. Of course, it also means you have to have a phone with a text messaging plan. Still this is my favored method.

Method No. 3 is my least favorite. The Security Question. This is where a lot of people fail. If you make the answer to your security question something guessable or easy to find out, then the strength of your password won't matter. Google suggests a few hard to guess things like your first phone number or Dad's middle name. But while they may be hard, all of these are discoverable. Thankfully, Google lets you write your own question.

I think you should treat this security question like another password. Write your own question and make the answer something entirely unguessable. Like What have you never told anyone else about? Answer: 5623break. Yes, that may be hard to remember, but it's very secure. Unfortunately, they don't let you leave this field blank, so at best you can fill it with nonsense information.

No system is 100 percent secure and obviously the most secure method here would be to provide no way to recover your password. However, if that's too strict for you, now you have some information to help you choose where in that balance between protection and convenience you land.