Questions remain following revelations that plain-text files with user credentials for nearly 100,000 members of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) was exposed on a publicly accessible server.
The FTP server had been left open to the Net for at least a month before the problem was discovered Sept. 18, according to Radu Dragusin, a teaching assistant at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. The files contained password and user ID information, including some belonging to members from organizations such as NASA and Stanford University as well as corporations like Apple and Google.
Though IEEE confirmed the breach after being notified by Dragusin Sept. 24, it has remained silent about exactly why the security failures that led to the information being exposed occurred. In a statement, IEEE said it has conducted a "thorough investigation" and addressed the issue, and is currently in the process of notifying anyone who may have been affected.
"Due to several undoubtedly grave mistakes, the ieee.org account username and plaintext password of around 100,000 IEEE members were publicly available on the IEEE FTP server for at least one month," Dragusin explains in a blog post. "Furthermore, all the actions these users performed on the ieee.org website were also available. Separately, spectrum.ieee.org visitor activity is also publicly available. "
"The simplest and most important mistake on the part of the IEEE web administrators was that they failed to restrict access to their webserver logs for both ieee.org and spectrum.ieee.org allowing these to be viewed by anyone going to the address ftp://ftp.ieee.org/uploads/akamai/ (closed on September 24 around 13:00 UTC, after I reported it)," Dragusin adds. "On these logs, as is the norm, every web request was recorded (more than 376 million HTTP requests in total). Web server logs should never be publicly available, since they usually contain information that can be used to identify users."
Constant changes in an organization's environment, such as network configurations, can lead to the type of access control failure that made the IEEE breach possible, says Torsten George, vice president of worldwide marketing, for products and support for Agiliance. These errors can be addressed through continuous monitoring, he said.
It is not clear whether someone other than Dragusin accessed the data. According to him, some 411,308 of the log entries contain both usernames and passwords. Out of these, there appear to be 99,979 unique usernames.
"If leaving an FTP directory containing 100GB of logs publicly open could be a simple mistake in setting access permissions, keeping both usernames and passwords in plaintext is much more troublesome," Dragusin blogs. "Keeping a salted cryptographic hash of the password is considered best practice, since it would mitigate exactly such an access permission mistake. Also, keeping passwords in logs is inherently insecure, especially plaintext passwords, since any employee with access to logs (for the purpose of analysis, monitoring or intrusion detection) could pose a threat to the privacy of users."
In an analysis of the data, Dragusin found that the most common password used by IEEE members is '123456', with 'ieee2012' coming in not far behind.
"We have already seen a number of data breaches this year where information was stored in the clear on internet facing servers," notes Todd Thiemann, senior director of product marketing for Vormetric.
"The IEEE incident is yet another reminder that enterprises need to reevaluate what constitutes sensitive data, know where that data resides, and implement baseline security measures like access control and encryption to protect it," he adds.
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