Data belonging to millions of Indian citizens who had signed up for a mobile payment app called BHIM may have been put at risk of misuse after it was left exposed and unencrypted in a misconfigured Amazon S3 storage bucket.
Researchers at VPN review service vpnMentor recently discovered the S3 bucket connected to a website that is being used to promote adoption of the payment app and to sign up new individual users and merchant businesses.
In a report, vpnMentor described the storage bucket as containing 409GB of data representing some 7.26 million records containing information needed to open a BHIM account. The data included scans of national ID cards; photos used as proof of residence; professional certificates, degrees, and diplomas; and names, date of birth, and religion. Also included in the data set were ID numbers for government programs and biometric identifiers such as fingerprint scans.
The personal user data contained in the dataset provided "a complete profile of individuals, their finances, and banking records," vpnMentor said. "Having such sensitive financial data in the public domain or the hands of criminal hackers would make it incredibly easy to trick, defraud, and steal from the people exposed," it noted.
In addition to data on individuals, the S3 bucket also contained "massive CSV lists" with information on merchants that had signed up for BHIM and the IDs used by business owners to make payment transfers via the app. Similar IDs belonging to over 1 million individuals may also have been potentially exposed via the misconfigured S3 bucket. Such IDs make it much easier for hackers to illegally access bank accounts belonging to the impacted individuals vpnMentor said.
However, the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), which launched BHIM in 2016, on Monday denied that any user data had been compromised and urged its users not to fall prey to what it described as speculative news reports. The organization claimed it followed highly secure practices and an "integrated approach" to protect its payments infrastructure and user data.
But Lisa Taylor, a researcher at vpnMentor, insists the breach happened.
"The fact remains that PII data of millions of Indian citizens was left unprotected on a public bucket," she says. "Instead of looking into the faults that lead to this breach and make sure they won't happen again, we are faced with ridiculous claims it never happened."
According to Taylor, vpnMentor confirmed a company named CSC BHIM as the owner of the storage bucket that contained the sensitive data. "The CSC BHIM site mentions NPCI and Punjab national bank as their partners," she says. The site features photos related to BHIM promotions in various parts of India, under the BHIM logo, Taylor adds. "The site itself bears the BHIM logo, as well as that of the Indian ministry of electronics and information."
BHIM — short for Bharat Interface for Money — is designed to let people and businesses make direct bank payments. One key feature of the app is that it lets users initiate transactions without having to enter banking information and other sensitive data each time. According to the NPCI, the Android version of the app has nearly 134 million downloads and the iOS version has 2.8 million downloads as of April 2020.
Long Trail of Similar Breaches
The reported incident involving BHIM is the latest example of a data exposure resulting from a poorly configured AWS S3 bucket. In recent years, there have been a virtually never-ending stream of similarly massive breaches.
In March, vpnMentor reported discovering over 500,000 documents — including credit reports, legal documents, bank statements, and driver's license information related to a mobile app developed by Advantage Capital Funding and Argus Capital Funding — in an open S3 bucket. Last year, risk management vendor Upguard reported finding data belonging to millions of customers of Thailand's Lion Air and two of its subsidiaries in an AWS storage bucket. In February, UpGuard again found data on 120 million retail customers sitting exposed in an AWS cloud container after a market analysis company put it there.
Often the breaches have resulted from basic configuration errors — like making the bucket private and setting authentication controls. A lack of proper understanding among administrators of how settings for access control lists and other policies governing access to S3 buckets work is another issue researchers have noted. The wide availability of tools that make it easy for people to look for misconfigured or easily compromised storage buckets has exacerbated the problem, they have noted.
According to vpnMentor, it discovered the BHIM data set in April and notified the developer of the website to which it was linked. When it did not receive a response, the company contacted India's Computer Emergency Response Team in April. But it was only after vpnMentor contacted the Indian CERT team once again in May that the breach was addressed, the company claimed.
This story was updated on June 2 with the comments from Lisa Taylor.