'Weird' Nintendo Switch Issue Makes it Easier to Guess Passwords

A design choice on the Nintendo Switch e-Shop can gives hackers clues as to a target’s password.
May 22, 2020, 12:26pm
Nintendo Switch
Image: Cathryn Virginia

Over the past few weeks, hackers breached tens of thousands of Nintendo accounts. In some cases, hackers bought digital products such as in-game currency with victims' linked payment information.

Now, a security researcher has found an odd issue with how the Nintendo Switch console handles login credentials, potentially making it easier for hackers to figure out peoples' passwords, and raising questions about how Nintendo is storing passwords

The issue revolves around how users log into the eShop from a Nintendo Switch. As security researcher Runa Sandvik explained it, when logging into the eShop before typing in a password, the 'OK' dialogue box is greyed out. When a user enters their correct password, it lights up and lets the user log in. Expected behaviour, so far.

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But Sandvik found that the 'OK' box also lights up if the user only enters the first eight characters of their password. The e-Shop won't let the user actually login—they still need to enter their complete password—but it does provide visual feedback to someone trying to guess a password that they're on the right track. Essentially, this could give a hacker a better chance of figuring out your password if they only have to determine what comes after the eighth character, although of course they would still need to get that first section too.

"Makes it easier when you signal whether the first 8 are correct," Sandvik said.

A screenshot showing the login box with the first seven characters of a password, and then a screenshot showing the login box with the first eight characters of a password. In the second screenshot, the 'OK' part of the dialogue box is lit up. Image: Motherboard

Beyond potentially providing hackers clues on whether they have part of someone's password, Nintendo being able to display this information raises several questions around how the company is protecting user's passwords in the first place.

Typically, websites and services will 'hash' a user's password, and store that rather than the plaintext password itself. A hash is essentially a one-way, cryptographic fingerprint of a piece of data. A user will type their password into the login box, the system will hash that input, and then compare it to the hash the website has on file to see if they match. If they do, the system logs the user in.

But, that would not necessarily work if Nintendo is able to tell a user that they've successfully entered the first eight characters of their password. Is Nintendo creating a hash of the first eight characters as well as another hash of the full password? Is Nintendo storing the first eight characters in plaintext?

"Weird," Pers Thorsheim, a password security expert and founder of the PasswordsCon conference told Motherboard in an online chat. "Good UX [user experience] may have been a point, but it might weaken or even compromise the security," he added.

Nintendo acknowledged a request for comment but did not answer any questions on how it stores passwords.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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