Airport PCs stuffed with meaty goodness

Intimate emails, malware, confidential data...

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Businesspeople are treating public access terminals in airport departure lounges as their home PCs and in the process exposing confidential data and email messages to all and sundry. A mixture of curiosity and boredom led consultants from the Dubai-based network security outfit Scanit to uncover a plethora of secrets left by globe-trotting executives who log on in-between flights.

Many airport executive lounges are equipped with PCs that allow business and first class fliers to surf the web. Rather than using a web-based email service and clearing the cache and password completion forms before shutting down, some execs are using Outlook Express packages on these machines to write emails.

Outlook Express is probably not configured to allow emails to be sent from these machines, so any message created simply moves to the system's 'outbox' where it remains indefinitely after the user clicks 'send'. Even if the system is configured to send messages, the email will normally be saved in the machine's 'sent items' folder. In either case, email messages are left wide open for subsequent access. You'd think most people would realise this but Scanit has discovered otherwise.

While traveling to meet clients, Scanit engineers found everything from intimate messages to mistresses (perfect for blackmail) to desktop-saved documents outlining multi-million dollar deals, complete with profit margins and lowest bid values.

Tasty.

They also found many of these airport lounge PCs were infected with computer viruses. Scanit chief exec David Michaux recalls a discovery he made while waiting for a delayed flight.

"As I was playing patience, I noticed heavy network traffic on the lounge machine’s taskbar even though I wasn’t using any network applications," he said. "After some delving I was amazed to find Back Orifice 2000 (BO2K) as the culprit. It had been invisibly collecting my keystrokes and sending a record of them to a Hotmail account every 15 minutes."

Michaux reported his findings to the lounge receptionist who said that she wasn't responsible for the security of machines. Another lapse (this time in a London airport) permitted users to log onto machines as an administrator rather than a restricted user. Again, Scanit’s engineers found key-loggers running on systems at the airport.

"The danger is that the CEO-types who travel on behalf of their companies and use these lounges are privy to usually sensitive data," Michaux explains. "This makes computers there a veritable goldmine, whether it’s executives downloading attachments from their web mail and leaving them on the desktop, or even deleting them afterwards, but not emptying the recycle bin before they leave to catch their plane."

Even executives who do take care are likely to be let down by the lounge’s lack of security, especially if a hacker has turned its machines into zombie drones. The security of wireless networks if often maligned but this is one problem wider use of laptops by business execs can help to control.

Michaux is keen to hear from anyone who has experienced security lapses on public access terminals, and invites users to contact him in confidence by email. ®

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