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Investigator ridicules UK visa site

'Upside down pyramid' about to topple

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Security on websites used to apply for UK visas is utter crap, an independent investigator looking into the matter has concluded - in so many words. They should remain shuttered until a list of improvements are completed by the governmental agency responsible for processing applications and the India-based private contractor hired to run the sites.

The system, implemented by a company called VFS, was so porous that user security questions could be viewed using simple SQL injections. There were no formal third-party penetration tests conducted. One internal report even recommended a Windows 2003 server running Service Pack 2 should be rolled back to SP1. Fortunately, organization inertia prevented the recommendation from ever being carried out.

"I note the expert view that the VFS online system is so poor that it should be completely rewritten - one expert described it as an upside down pyramid, where piling more levels of changes and processes on the top only makes it more likely to fall over," the independent investigator, L. M. Costelloe Baker, wrote in her report (PDF here).

"I also note that VFS has accepted that it is not an IT company and that it needs to outsource its software writing."

The scathing, 47-page report came at the insistence of the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office following the discovery in May that the site was leaking the personal details of visa applicants. The breach was particularly notable because the security hole responsible had been reported more than a year earlier but no action had been taken.

When Sanjib Mitra, the Indian individual who uncovered the problem, went public with his discovery on May 17, the story led television news casts and resulted in a promise from the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the FOC that the agency would conduct a thorough investigation into the matter.

The FCO, in responding to the report, said the VFS application site will be replaced by a UKvisas application facility called visa4UK. UKvisas has made other changes, including measures to ensure contractors maintaining visa application centers comply with various security compliance laws and industry best practices.

The investigator also took UKvisas to task for failing to act on notifications from three people that there were security weaknesses.

"I do not find it acceptable for a complaint to be simply passed on to a third party - VFS in this case - for a response," Costelloe Baker write. "If UKvisas felt responsible for replying to the complaints, it may have paid more attention to the outcomes." ®

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