Attacks/Breaches

5/10/2013
09:23 AM
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Washington State Courts Reveal Security Breach

State officials don't know when attackers accessed up to 160,000 Social Security and 1 million driver's license numbers stored in unencrypted format.

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Attackers hacked into Washington state's Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) servers and obtained copies of up to 160,000 social security numbers and 1 million driver's license numbers, state officials said Thursday.

Officials don't know exactly when the breach occurred or how many records -- which could be used to commit identity theft -- were stolen. But they nonetheless attempted to downplay the severity of the incident in media interviews. "The hackers were probably opportunistic," Mike Keeling, IT operations and maintenance manager for the court system, told reporters on a conference call, reported Reuters. "They were more than likely just fishing for data."

Keeling said the failure to store sensitive personal information on a better-protected server, encrypt the data or better lock down servers to prevent network traversal "was an oversight on our part."

[ Is the state spending enough on IT security? Read Why IT Spending Is Stuck In A Vicious Circle. ]

Washington's court administrator Callie T. Dietz said in a statement: "We regret that this breach has occurred and we have taken immediate action to enhance the security of these sites."

Attackers breached the Washington state court systems by exploiting a flaw in Adobe ColdFusion software, which has since been patched by the court's IT department. State officials didn't disclose whether attackers exploited a zero-day vulnerability or a known vulnerability in ColdFusion, or whether a version of the patched software from Adobe was already available at the time of the breach. Answering those questions might be difficult, however, since state officials don't know exactly when the breach occurred, saying only that it seemed to happen after September 2012 and before February 2013.

The breach was discovered in February by an unnamed business on the east coast, which was attacked in a similar manner, after which it somehow found signs of a similar intrusion against the Washington state court servers. "They recognized our information in their breach log," Keeling said.

State officials at first thought their attackers had only accessed public data. By April, however, investigators at Washington State Consolidated Technology Services and the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center found that information exposed during the breach included people's names, as well as social security numbers or driver's license numbers. All of the exposed information related to people who received a DUI citation between 1989 and 2011; were booked into a city or county jail between September 2011 and December 2012; were involved in a traffic case in 2011 or 2012; or were involved in a criminal case filed against them in superior court in 2011 or 2012.

To date, state officials said they've identified 94 people whose information was likely stolen by attackers, and said all have been contacted by letter. "We found specific [hacker] footprints in the area where those 94 Social Security numbers were located, so that's why we're reasonably sure that the data was accessed," Keeling said.

None of those 94 people were offered data-breach-monitoring services or credit protection, although state officials said they might do so if the data breach victims request them. The state has set up a hotline (1-800-448-5584) and website (www.courts.wa.gov/databreach) to answer questions pertaining to the breach.

Washington state's CIO, Michael Cockrill, said the breach hadn't affected the state's executive branch, which is on a separate network. Cockrill also said that Gov. Jay Inslee has charged his office -- together with the state's Consolidated Technology Services department -- with improving the information security posture of the judicial systems. "The AOC data breach is a sobering reminder for every branch and every level of government, that protection of personal and confidential data entrusted to government is a paramount responsibility," he said.

Washington joins a list of growing list of states -- including Texas and Utah -- that in recent years have exposed people's personal information because of state officials' failure to properly secure it.

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