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Press exposure of Federal data security hole leads to legal threats

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An investigation into a security slip that left the identity information for over 170,000 users of a US federal government program publicly available online has led to accusations of hacking and legal threats.

The Scripps News investigative team spent the last month studying companies running Lifeline, a federal program to supply cheap fixed or mobile phone access for low-income households. Lifeline was set up by President Reagan and is paid for by a $2.97 surcharge on telecoms bills.

The team found that two of the commercial companies in the scheme, TerraCom and affiliate YourTel America, had cached application forms for Lifeline on unsecured web servers – forms containing names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, and details of other government programs potential users were registered for.

"Every single piece of information that we either viewed, or used to view records, was all 100 per cent publicly accessible," reporter Isaac Wolf told The Register. "It was all freely posted online and was not password protected."

In a video showing the exploit, Wolf found a large chunk of private data simply by searching Terracom's site on Google for a particular file type. Page two of the search results showed a Lifeline application form on plain view and a domain search of the site revealed more files on public view.

Before publishing the story, Scripps got in contact with the companies involved and asked for an interview. While the security hole was quickly fixed and users' data password-protected, the investigative team received not an interview but a legal letter threatening prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

The letter, which refers to the investigative team as the "Scripps Hackers," claims they used the GNU Wget code to download the files from the web. It claims the team tried (unsuccessfully) to break into password-protected accounts at its Vcare hosting company, and says downloading 19,000 application forms and 120,000 proof files does not show "solely journalistic intent."

The controversial CFAA legislation – introduced in 1986, before the World Wide Web even existed – was the legislation used to prosecute internet activist Aaron Swartz. It's currently under review in Congress, although politicians are looking to extend its reach, rather than reforming the law.

Under a strict interpretation of the CFAA, lying about your age on a dating site could be criminal as well as stupid, and a clever lawyer might argue that a script like Wget constitutes an attempt to hack a site. If so, then jail time and fines can be levied.

"A digital forensics investigation by TerraCom has revealed that the news service used sophisticated computer techniques and non-public information to view and download the personal information of applicants," TerraCom COO Dale Schmick told The Register in an email. "The news service had to identify non-public directories in TerraCom’s computer system and decipher sophisticated URL addresses that included sequences of 14 random numbers to download the 170,000 files they now have in their possession."

A TerraCom spokesman said that the team used knowledge that was well beyond simple internet searches, because the investigators also got information by fiddling with URL data to fish for unprotected information.

The company accepts responsibility for the security breach and has fixed the issue, the spokesman told El Reg, but is in "ongoing discussions" with federal and state regulators and law enforcement about the case. Scripps Scripps News denies that it accessed any non-public records and points out that TerraCom has declined numerous interview requests to go over the evidence.

If charges are brought, then the knock-on effect for security researchers could be severe. Normally El Reg would assume the Scripps team could beat the charges, but in this judicial climate there's always the possibility it won’t. ®

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