Feeds

Data collector threatens scribe who reported breach

Shoot the messenger, Texas-style

Reducing security risks from open source software

A Texas company is threatening to press criminal and civil charges against a Minnesota Public Radio reporter after she uncovered a security lapse that exposed sensitive data for at least 500 people.

Bellaire, Texas-based Lookout Services admits that misconfigurations on its website left databases containing names, dates of birth, and social security numbers accessible to unauthorized individuals. But the company, which verifies the identities of new employees, says MPR and its reporter, Sasha Aslanian, violated criminal statutes when she viewed databases belonging to five of Lookout's customers.

"They breached the security of the database without authorization, which is a serious offense," Gregory Abbott, a Minneapolis attorney representing Lookout, told The Register. "There's both criminal and civil liability attached to that. I would anticipate litigation."

Lookout has already sued the state of Minnesota because one of its employees allegedly leaked details of the vulnerability after learning of it at a company-sponsored webinar.

In an article published Friday, MPR reported that it was "able to access state employee data on Lookout Service's website without using a password" and that the cache included personal details of employees for every Minnesota agency using the service. The state directed all its agencies to stop using the service once the glitch was brought to its attention.

The report went on to say that data from a long list of private companies was also accessible. The exposure continued even after MPR alerted Lookout of the problem, although it has been fixed since then, Abbott said.

There is no evidence any of the data Lookout exposed has been used for nefarious purposes, but Abbott said his client intends to take legal action anyway. Lookout has already reported MPR to law enforcement officials, and he said the company expects to file a civil action against MPR by the end of this year.

In a statement, MPR said: "We are aware of Lookout Services allegations concerning an investigative report by MPR's Sasha Aslanian. Sasha's story exemplified good, solid reporting, and we stand by it."

Little is known about the precise vulnerability that exposed the data. Abbott said his understanding is that it allowed outsiders to view private records by manipulating specific parameters of database URLs.

That account - which sounds like a common website ailment known as predictable resource location - is consistent with details provided by MinnPost.com when it paraphrased Lookout CEO Elaine Morley as saying that people who accessed Lookout databases from MPR computers "added and subtracted things from the web address, finally getting through to the state info."

Abbott said the hack first surfaced during an October webinar for Minnesota employees, during which "a specific hole" was exposed that allowed MPR reporters to get around security. Although Lookout employees fixed it, it would appear that similar holes were allowed to remain.

He rejected the idea that the dispute is a case of Lookout blaming the messenger reporting a vulnerability that could have been exploited by people with motives that were far less pure.

"This is not a hack that could have happened from the outside," he said. "They all started when a client used information from a training that led to a security hole."

Lookout has already sued the state of Minnesota for breach of contract in connection with the vulnerability disclosure. Abbott said the precise elements of the lawsuit he's preparing against MPR are still up in the air, but that it would almost certainly allege that Aslanian violated the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and various Texas statutes.

Lookout CEO Morley said her website was recently audited for security by penetration testers from SecurityMetrics and Adhost.

The dispute underscores the risk whistleblowers face when reporting vulnerabilities on large websites. Webmasters typically demand proof of a flaw before putting much credence in a report, and yet specific examples can open the person disclosing them up to serious liability. Companies such as Microsoft long ago came to recognize the value of outside ethical hackers who responsibly report vulnerabilities on its website with a pledge to insulate them from criminal and civil charges.

It would appear Lookout isn't quite as savvy. If the company prevails, the only people who will know about potential security lapses will be criminal hackers, and they generally don't say much. That's something prospective customers may want to consider before signing on. ®

This article was updated to add information about penetration testing on Lookout's website.

Mobile application security vulnerability report

More from The Register

next story
LibreSSL RNG bug fix: What's all the forking fuss about, ask devs
Blow to bit-spitter 'tis but a flesh wound, claim team
Microsoft: You NEED bad passwords and should re-use them a lot
Dirty QWERTY a perfect P@ssword1 for garbage websites
Manic malware Mayhem spreads through Linux, FreeBSD web servers
And how Google could cripple infection rate in a second
NUDE SNAPS AGENCY: NSA bods love 'showing off your saucy selfies'
Swapping other people's sexts is a fringe benefit, says Snowden
L33t haxxors compete to p0wn popular home routers
EFF-endorsed SOHOpelessly Broken challenge will air routers' dirty zero day laundry
Own a Cisco modem or wireless gateway? It might be owned by someone else, too
Remote code exec in HTTP server hands kit to bad guys
British data cops: We need greater powers and more money
You want data butt kicking, we need bigger boots - ICO
Crooks fling banking Trojan at Japanese smut site fans
Wait - they're doing online banking with an unpatched Windows PC?
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Prevent sensitive data leakage over insecure channels or stolen mobile devices.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.
Mobile application security vulnerability report
The alarming realities regarding the sheer number of applications vulnerable to attack, and the most common and easily addressable vulnerability errors.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.