That’s right, Alaska Governor and republican Vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's quasi-personal Yahoo Mail (email@example.com) account was hacked into by the infamous group called “Anonymous”. While there are conflicting news reports on the incident’s authenticity - emails, screen shots, and family photos have been posted to Wikileaks as proof. If we assume the incident is real, there are so many ways a free WebMail account could be compromised – some more likely than others:
1) Password guessing / brute force attacks
2) Password recovery system flaw or website vulnerability
3) Network sniffers
4) Phishing scams
5) Insider (rouge customer service representation or software backdoor)
6) Operating System Malware/Spyware
7) Stolen hardware
8) Lost backup tape (hah, as if free WebMail providers have backups!)
9) Use of a public computer
etc. maybe more I’m not thinking of.
For myself and the rest of the InfoSec industry the “how” is interesting, but its unimportant for everyday users like our friends, family, coworkers, politicians, etc. What they need to know is WebMail compromises could happen to anyone - even if they do everything “right” because security is largely out of their hands or impossible to behave perfectly all the time. Mistakes happen and the more high profile of a person you are the higher the likelihood you will be targeted.
Bottom line: DO NOT receive or store anything you don’t want read or made public on these “free” WebMail systems. They are NOT private. They are NOT secure. They are NOT safe. The same goes for Google Docs, social network private messages, online backup solutions, whatever. What they are is FREE and CONVEINIENT. The businesses that support them are not accountable for your privacy, security, or lack thereof. Read their EULA or ToS if you don’t want to take my word for it.