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Financial company heavies researcher for reporting vulnerability

Sledgehammer meets walnut: shrapnel flies

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An Australian security researcher has found himself questioned by police and threatened by a commercial law firm – for reporting a vulnerability to a financial company.

Proving that shoot-the-messenger ham-fistedness isn’t dead, First State Super – which handles much of the superannuation of the NSW public service, among other things – exhibited with a Website flaw so basic the customer should be seeking out the designer with pitchforks and torches, and wants to punish the researcher for alerting it to the problem.

The sequence of events, first reported on Patrick Gray’s Risky Business, runs like this: Patrick Webster of OSI Security identified a direct object reference bug while examining his own superannuation (“pension fund” to Americans) account, in which his account ID was embedded in the URL. Incrementing the URL took him to someone else’s account.

Webster notified First State Super with – and this seems to have been his error – a proof-of-concept in the form of a Bash script. However, somewhere in the escalation chain of First State Super, someone apparently has the bit between his/her teeth and won’t let go.

First, according to the initial Risky Business report, police were called, and questioned Webster on the evening of October 12. Next, First State Super admitted its problem, fixed the bug, and notified users (along with giving them information regarding how they could change their account numbers if they wished).

And today (Friday 14), First State has escalated its war on the messenger, suspending Webster’s account on the basis of a breach of terms and conditions, and engaging lawyers Minter Ellison to demand access to Webster’s computer (to verify deletion of account statements not his own) and threatens to seek costs from Webster.

The letter also makes reference to the computer access provisions of the NSW Crimes Act and Commonwealth Criminal Code, apparently perpetuating the debatable belief that altering a URL constitutes “hacking” or at least “unauthorised access to a computer” – something which could entertain a capable defence lawyer.

As Gray writes: “It was Pillar Administration and First State Superannuation's diabolical violation of good practice that exposed members' details, not Webster's actions.”

First State Super’s CEO Michael Dwyer told Gray that the threats are “just a matter of procedure … regardless of them being a computer expert with a point to prove”, but conceded that First State Super’s security testing “has not been adequate”.

However, Dwyer still seemed somewhat confused at the nature of the vulnerability, later seeming to assert that Webster “knows how to crack a firewall” (it’s about six minutes into the recorded interview with Gray linked from his story). He did, however, seem to offer the opinion that matters will be resolved without too much blood being spilled; what seems on the outside to be needlessly aggressive is, it appears, all down to procedure. ®

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