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AOL is investigating reports that crackers gained access to its customer database through a combination of cracking and social engineering exploits.

The allegation of an extremely serious security breach is published today in Wired. The publication interviewed hackers who claim to have gained full access to Merlin, AOL's latest intranet-based customer database application. If true, the breach potentially exposes the private information of AOL's 35 million users.

However we have serious doubts that the Merlin exploit as detailed would be effective: Wired explains the scenario thus:

The hack involves tricking an AOL employee into accepting a file using Instant Messenger or uploading a Trojan horse to an AOL file library. When the file is executed, the Trojan horse connects the user who launched it to an Internet relay chat server, which the hacker can use to issue commands on the targeted machine. This allows the hacker to enter the internal AOL network and the Merlin application.

Merlin requires a user ID, two passwords and a SecurID code, all of which hackers obtain by spamming the AOL employee database with phony security updates, through online password trades, or by "social engineering" attacks over IM or the telephone.

Hmmm.

SecurID codes change constantly, every 60 seconds, and are almost always contained in a device (for example keyfob) which is separate from a user's PC. For this reason we have out doubts that the exploit - as explained - would work. Hackers would need to steal a token (and hope it wasn't cancelled), or have someone on the inside feeding them information on request, it would seem.

Mumbling's the word

These doubts aside, the Wired article contains a fresh twist of the latest social-engineering exploits, which we'll call war-mumbling. Again AOL is the target of this alleged attack.

A hacker, nicknamed hakrobatik, explained the trick to Wired.

I kept calling and pretending I just had jaw surgery and mumbling gibberish. At first I had no info except the screen name, then I called and got the first name and last name by saying, 'Could you repeat what I just said?' Then each time that I got information I called back making the real information understandable, and everything else I just mumbled.

Eventually service reps got so fed up, that they reset a user's password. In this way, hakrobatik plausibly claims, a cracker could gain access to any AOL member's account - using only a screen name - by phoning up overseas call centres.

An AOL spokesman told us it was investigating the allegations of security breaches documented by Wired.

He said: "We take any attempt to compromise a member's personal information extremely seriously. Such actions are illegal, and we will work with law enforcement to prosecute whenever possible."

"We are currently investigating the specific allegations." ®

External Link

Wired: Hackers Run Wild and Free on AOL

Mobile application security vulnerability report

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