Feeds

USC admissions site cracked wide open

Flaw allowed access to applicant data

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

SANS - Survey on application security programs

A programming error in the University of Southern California's online system for accepting applications from prospective students left the personal information of users publicly accessible, school officials confirmed this week.

The flaw put at risk "hundreds of thousands" of records containing personal information, including names, birth dates, addresses and social-security numbers, according to the person who discovered the vulnerability. The Web programming error allowed the discoverer, who asked only to be identified by the alias "Sap," to slip commands to the site's database through the log-in interface.

"The authentication process can be bypassed, and you can find the information for any student who has filled out an application online," said the discoverer, who claimed to be a security-savvy student who found the flaw during the process of applying to USC, stated in an email to SecurityFocus. "From there, you can view or change profile info, (and get) the person's user name and password combo. Entire tables can be exposed, remote command execution, you name it. Basically, they are owned."

USC's Information Services Division confirmed the problem and shuttered the site this week as a precaution, but did not confirm the size of the potential data leak or whether the university plans to tell applicants of the issue.

SecurityFocus notified the university of the issue two weeks ago after being tipped off by the discoverer. The university initially removed the log-in functionality from the site for several days, but allowed applicants to log in for most of last week. USC completely blocked access to the site this week.

"We are investigating the matter and will have more information available soon," USC spokeswoman Usha Sutliff said on Tuesday.

The potential privacy issues come as other high-profile data leaks among financial institutions has focused attention on organizations' general failures in securing customer information. In the most recent case, MasterCard International outed credit-card processor CardServices Solutions for failing to secure transactions, leading to tens of thousands of cases of fraud and potentially putting as many as 40 million credit-card accounts at risk.

"Companies and organizations still don't understand the value of what they are protecting, and as a result they are not putting adequate resources towards that protection," said Richard Purcell, CEO of independent privacy consultancy Corporate Privacy Group.

For example, many colleges and universities used a student's social security number as their primary student identifier, until recently, he said. Some schools still have not stopped the practice.

"They are printing social-security numbers on ID cards, transcripts and reports," Purcell said.

The University of Southern California is the latest college in the United States to discover flaws in its online systems. The University of Connecticut notified its students, staff and faculty last week that a computer hacking tool had been found on a server containing 72,000 personal records, including social security numbers, dates of birth, phone numbers, and addresses, according to published reports. In March, Boston College acknowledged that 100,000 records from its alumni database may have been copied, while a laptop owned by a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley and containing personal information on 1.4 million Californians was found to be compromised last October.

Incidents at many other colleges - including the Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Texas at Austin, George Mason University, and the University of California at Los Angeles - have also put personal information at risk.

The vulnerability in USC's online Web application system is a relatively common and well-known software bug, known as database injection or SQL injection. A lack of security checks on user input allows a hostile user to submit a database command rather than a log-in name. The command could cause the database to send its information back to the attacker or aid the attacker in compromising the computer system hosting the database.

"All this stuff gets back to the fact that we are still building this thing called the internet and security varies all over the map," said Richard Smith, an independent privacy and security consultant based in Boston. "Some people understand it very well and others don't."

The person who discovered the flaw was able to access at least four database records using the vulnerability. The exploit information and the records were forwarded to USC officials two weeks ago by SecurityFocus.

The issue is still being investigated, but under California's Security Breach Information Act, also know as S.B. 1386, organizations that may have disclosed sensitive personal information, including social security numbers, must notify the people affected of the potential breach. USC has not said when, or even if, the school intends to notify applicants who used the system that their data may have been at risk.

Copyright © 2004, SecurityFocus logo

Related stories

Business school 'hack' raises ethical questions
Academia battles forces of IT anarchy
DEC 'tsunami hack' man pleads not guilty

Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction

More from The Register

next story
Parent gabfest Mumsnet hit by SSL bug: My heart bleeds, grins hacker
Natter-board tells middle-class Britain to purée its passwords
Obama allows NSA to exploit 0-days: report
If the spooks say they need it, they get it
Web data BLEEDOUT: Users to feel the pain as Heartbleed bug revealed
Vendors and ISPs have work to do updating firmware - if it's possible to fix this
Samsung Galaxy S5 fingerprint scanner hacked in just 4 DAYS
Sammy's newbie cooked slower than iPhone, also costs more to build
Mounties always get their man: Heartbleed 'hacker', 19, CUFFED
Canadian teen accused of raiding tax computers using OpenSSL bug
Snowden-inspired crypto-email service Lavaboom launches
German service pays tribute to Lavabit
One year on: diplomatic fail as Chinese APT gangs get back to work
Mandiant says past 12 months shows Beijing won't call off its hackers
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing a defence for mobile apps
In this whitepaper learn the various considerations for defending mobile applications; from the mobile application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies needed to properly assess mobile applications risk.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Securing web applications made simple and scalable
In this whitepaper learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.