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Database of 24 Million Mortgage, Loan Records Left Exposed Online

Breach latest example of how misconfigurations, human errors undermine security in a big way, experts say.

Data on tens of thousands of loans and mortgages issued by Wells Fargo, CapitalOne, and several other financial institutions — some now defunct — was recently found leaked online in what appears to be a particularly egregious example of human error.

Independent security researcher Volodymyr "Bob" Diachenko discovered the data on January 10 in an Elasticsearch database that was openly accessible via the Internet and not protected even by a password. The database has since been removed.

Diachenko, in collaboration with TechCrunch, investigated the breach and identified the entity responsible for putting the database online as Ascension Data & Analytics, a firm that provides a range of custom analytics services around loan data. Ascension is a vendor to companies that purchase mortgages and loans from banks.

TechCrunch, the first to report the breach along with Diachenko's Security Discovery blog, quoted representatives from Citi and Wells Fargo as saying the banks had no direct connection with Ascension.

In total, the database that Diachenko found contained more than 24 million records amounting to some 51GB of data. Many of the documents contained the full names, addresses, social security numbers, credit history, loan amounts, repayment schedules, and other details typically associated with a home mortgage or other bank loan. Such information can be especially useful to criminals seeking to commit identify theft and other types of financial fraud.

The records were copies of handwritten notes and printed documents related to loans and mortgages that Ascension had converted into a computer-readable form via Optical Character Recognition (OCR).

Diachenko, who regularly uses public search engines like Shodan and Censys to search for exposed databases and report them back to the responsible organizations, says he found the Ascension data the same way.

"Despite my pretty busy pipeline of reports, it is not often when I find such a large amount of sensitive data collected in one place, without any password or login," Diachenko says.

Most of the time, the exposure is the result of a human error rather than a technical or factory-level misconfiguration, he says. "On top of that, insecure databases have always been a common target for attackers, especially Elasticsearch instances."

The TechCrunch report suggests that a New York-based company called OpticsML that works with Ascension was involved in the breach as well. But it is not entirely clear what the company's role was in the incident. Neither Ascension nor Rocktop Partners — a firm that TechCrunch identified as the parent of Ascension — responded to a Dark Reading request for comment on the data breach. But in comments to TechCrunch, a Rocktop representative confirmed the breach and said it will notify all individuals impacted by the exposure.

Unintended Disclosures

Despite all the concern over cybercriminals and nation-state actors, a startlingly high proportion of data breaches, especially in the cloud, result from basic misconfigurations and human error. "The big takeaway is that this data exposure was totally avoidable," says Pravin Kothari, CEO of CipherCloud.

Based on available data, the breach appears to have been the result of an internal administrative error. "In the final analysis, the cloud providers secure their infrastructure, but it is totally up to you to secure your data," Kothari says.

Data maintained by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse shows that 20% of all breaches in 2018 resulted from causes not involving hacking or criminal intent. In many cases, the breaches were the result of sensitive information accidentally being posted publicly, sent to the wrong party, mistakenly distributed via email or physical mail, and other similar mishandling. More data records - 54.7% - were exposed last year via such incidents than any other reason.

In a report last year, Symantec identified the three most common configuration mistakes that organizations make in the cloud as leaky storage buckets, vulnerabilities caused by open-source components, and accidentally leaving tokens, passwords and other secrets in publicly accessible repositories. In a 2018 study, Digital Shadows estimated some 1.5 billion files are exposed online as the result of misconfigured Amazon S3 buckets, FTP servers, network attached storage, and SMB file-sharing.

"Common configuration errors include failing to password-protect databases with sensitive data, failing to configure servers to limit access, and failing to encrypt sensitive data in general," says Jonathan Deveaux, head of enterprise data protection at comforte AG.

Mistakes often result from a lack of knowledge about where sensitive data resides, he says. Negligent and careless insiders and a failure to recognize that security is everyone's concern are other issues, he notes.

Colin Bastable, CEO of Lucy Security, says breaches such as the one involving Ascension are the manifestation of a training and attitude problem. "Who leaves such data without password protection? Someone who does not care," he says.

Plenty of tools are available to protect data at all stages of the lifecycle, so technology is not an issue. "Fundamentally … management needs to fear the consequences of exposing personal data more than they crave the money from trading data," Bastable says.

Partner Problems

The Ascension data breach is also another example of the exposure that companies can face from the security mistakes of partners, suppliers, vendors, and other third parties with whom they interact either directly, or even indirectly. In this case, even though Citi and Wells Fargo did not appear to have direct contact with Ascension for years, their customer data still got exposed.

Such incidents show why it is important for organizations to prioritize vendors based on business exposure and potential impact and then applying the right level of due diligence to those vendors, says Fred Kneip, CEO at CyberGRX.

"A lot of organizations don't have a handle on which vendors pose them the greatest risk," he says. 

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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