I keep seeing this pop up. “Your CMS is not secure because it makes your username/id public! Once a hacker has that, they can try to break in!” At one point I snapped “Sure, and your house isn’t secure because someone knows your address.”
It’s one of those logical fallacies that seems vaguely accurate on the surface, but really are just plain wrong. On some level, you’d think that if a hacker doesn’t know your ID, they can’t get in, but the reality is most hackers, the surface level idiots who are trying to break into any site available aren’t checking for your user ID/Name, they’re looking specifically for a vulnerability, like they did with the TimThumb accidental (D)DoS.
In addition, they’re not usually looking for your ID when trying that brute force login attack. The practical difference between someone trying to log in with “admin” and someone trying to log in with “ipstenu” is pretty negligible, since they’re killing my server before they get in anyway.
As I wrote this, I thought what it would be like if there was a mod_security rule that checks if you’re trying to log into a site with the username ‘admin’ and, if so, blocks you from being able to log in. Of course, there are millions of sites with millions of CMS tools, and for some you actually cannot change the admin account name away from admin.
WordPress is not alone in thinking your username isn’t a secret. Drupal also thinks disclosure of usernames/id is not a security risk. In fact, Google doesn’t think your ID is a secret. After all, you can log in to Google’s devices with your email, and everyone whom you’ve ever emailed kinda knows that. “Oh, you emailed me from firstname.lastname@example.org? I’ll attack that!”
Now of course, if you try to log in with that too many times, you lock your IP out. And similarly, if you try to log in to my server via SSH too many times, the same thing happens. Have I ever locked myself out? You bet. Less since I switched to 1Password and SSH keys, but it still is very effective.
Why isn’t this built into the core of most CMSs? Because a CMS like Drupal and WordPress is not as volatile as, say, the healthcare.gov site. The danger that comes from someone getting into my blog is minimal compared to someone getting into my email. But again, everyone knows my email account, so they’ve always got one half to the puzzle right then and there.
One of the other primary reasons this isn’t built in to WordPress is that it’s hard to do right, and in a way that will work on all servers, and in a way that will be easy for someone to undo. I said I locked myself out a couple times, right? I can unlock myself with a device on another IP, or I can call up my webhost and tell them my IP and can they please unlock me. Now flip that to your blog. How do you handle it? Who do you call? Do you make this a ‘solvable by the host only’ problem? Can you envision your host being happy about handling that?
Not that I’m passing the buck here. There are plugins and extensions that do this, but they’re still best used by people who already understand security than by the common man, because the people who know what to do when they have to edit a .htaccess are the ones who probably already know how to pick a secure password, or install two-factor authentication already.
All this comes back to something blindingly obvious though. Everyone is going to know part of your access. The reason we tell people not to use ‘admin’ as a login ID is not because it’s more or less secure, but because it makes it easy for script kiddies to target. Remember, most of the time when you’re being attacked it’s nothing you did personally, it’s just a script running. When it’s someone who has an absolute vendetta against you, your userID is the least of your concerns.
The crux of the matter here is that your username is not a point of authentication, it’s a point of identification. Giving you an identification (I am Ipstenu) is not the same as giving you data that can be used to authentication (my mother’s maiden name is Jones; I was born in Battlesboro, VT; My favorite superhero is the Flash). There’s a reason we call them ‘Secret Questions’ as they’re both identification and authentication. Only I would know these things. And no, that’s not true, which is why secret questions are pretty useless. The more obscure they are (my first maths teacher) the less likely I am to remember them correctly. “His name was Smith… Now did I put in Dr. Smith, Mr. Smith, or Smith? Oh wait, how did he spell Smith? Smythe? Smyth? I know people with all those spellings! Which was he?”
So no. Your user ID is not a secret, nor should it be. I spend no time hiding it.