Category: Cyber security

Microsoft Exchange Target of Hacks

29. March 2021

Microsoft’s Exchange Servers are exposed to an ever-increasing number of attacks. This is the second major cyberattack on Microsoft in recent months, following the so-called SolarWinds hack (please see our blog post). The new attacks are based on vulnerabilities that have been in the code for some time but have only recently been discovered.

In a blog post published on March 2nd, 2021, Microsoft explains the hack and a total of four found vulnerabilities. The first vulnerability allows attackers to gain access to a Microsoft Exchange Server, the second vulnerability allows them to execute their code on the system, and the third and fourth vulnerabilities allow the hacker write access to arbitrary files on the server. Microsoft Exchange Server versions 2019, 2016, 2013 and 2010 are affected, and Microsoft released a security update for all of them on March 2nd, even though support for Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 ended in October 2020.

Reportedly, Microsoft was informed about the vulnerability in January. Since then, a growing number of hacker groups have started to use the exploit. The initial campaign is attributed to HAFNIUM, a group believed to be state-sponsored and operating out of China. According to Microsoft, the vulnerabilities have been in the code for many years without being discovered. Only recently has Microsoft become aware of these vulnerabilities and begun working on them. Microsoft shared information on the vulnerability through the Microsoft Active Protections Program (Mapp), where they share information with a group of 80 security companies. The attacks began shortly after Microsoft began working to resolve the vulnerabilities. There are many similarities between the code Microsoft shared through Mapp and the code the attackers are using.

In an article about a recently published One-Click Exchange On-premises Mitigation Tool (EOMT), Microsoft developers describe how admins can secure Exchange servers against the current attacks within a very short amount of time. The tool only serves as an initial protective measure. For comprehensive protection, available security updates must be installed. In addition, it must be checked whether the hackers have already exploited existing gaps to leave behind backdoors and malware. This is because the updates close the gaps, but do not eliminate an infection that has already occurred. Hackers often do not use gaps immediately for an attack, but to gain access later, for example for large-scale blackmail.

Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), organizations affected by an attack on personal data must, in certain circumstances, report such an incident to the relevant supervisory authority and possibly to the affected individuals. Even after a successful patch, it should be kept in mind that affected organizations were vulnerable in the meantime. Pursuant to Art. 33 of the GDPR, system compromises that may affect personal data and result in a risk to data subjects must be notified to the competent supervisory authority. For such a notification, the time of discovery of the security breach, the origin of the security breach, the possible scope of the personal data affected, and the first measures taken must be documented.

SMS flaw lets hackers take control of individuals’ phones for $16

24. March 2021

Hackers have discovered a new method of gaining access to individuals’ mobile devices via text message rerouting, Vice reports. Apparently, all it takes is $16 to retrieve a person’s messages from a third-party provider and then take over the phone number and, with it, various associated accounts.

All of that is possible due to a text messaging service called Sakari that allows businesses to send SMS reminders, alerts, confirmations and marketing campaigns. The company lets business users import their own phone number in order to be contacted by the businesses. However, the service has a significant security vulnerability. Its use is enabled by purchasing Sakari’s $16 per month plan and then filling out a document saying that the signer has authority to change phone numbers. Although the document points out that the user should not conduct any unlawful, harassing or inappropriate behavior, there is no subsequent call or text notification from Sakari asking the user to confirm the consent to the transfer. That’s why it is largely effortless to simply sign up with another person’s phone number and receive their text messages instead. From that moment on, it can be trivial to hack into other accounts associated with that phone number by sending login requests, as they rely on SMS codes.

This overlooked security flaw shows how frighteningly easy it is to gain access to the tools necessary to seize phone numbers. It requires less technical skill or knowledge than, for instance, SIM jacking. It demonstrates not only the insufficient regulation of commercial SMS tools but also gaping holes in the telecommunications infrastructure, since a hacker only needs to pretend having the user’s consent.

The attack method has implications for cybercrime and poses an enormous threat to safety and security. It enables criminals to harass people, drain their bank account, tear through their digital lives or intercept sensitive information or personal secrets. At this time, it is not clear to what extent this attack method is being applied to mobile numbers.

CTIA, a trade association representing the wireless industry, stated that they immediately launched an investigation into the matter and took precautionary measures. Adam Horsman, co-founder of Sakari, responded to the insufficient authentication of their customers by saying that Sakari added a security feature where a number will receive an automated call in order to confirm the consent given. Moreover, Sakari will verify all existing text-enabled numbers. But Sakari is just one company. And there are plenty of others in this industry. As this method raises serious concerns, it is important for mobile carriers to do more to protect their customers’ privacy and security, such as notifications when registering a new device or a two-factor-authentication.

Data Breach made 136,000 COVID-19 test results publicly accessible

18. March 2021

Personal health data are considered a special category of personal data under Art. 9 of the GDPR and are therefore given special protections. A group of IT experts, including members of the German Chaos Computer Club (CCC), has now revealed security gaps in the software for test centres by which more than 136,000 COVID-19 test results of more than 80,000 data subjects have apparently been unprotected on the internet for weeks.

The IT-Security experts’ findings concern the software “SafePlay” of the Austrian company Medicus AI. Many test centres use this software to allocate appointments and to make test results digitally available to those tested. In fact, more than 100 test centres and mobile test teams in Germany and Austria are affected by the recent data breach. These include public facilities in Munich, Berlin, Mannheim as well as fixed and temporary testing stations in companies, schools and daycare centres.

In order to view the test results unlawfully, one only needed to create an account for a COVID-19 test. The URL for the test result contained the number of the test. If this number was simply counted up or down, the “test certificates” of other people became freely accessible. In addition to the test result, the test certificate also contained the name, date of birth, private address, nationality and ID number of the person concerned.

It remains unresolved whether the vulnerabilities have been exploited prior to the discovery by the CCC. The CCC notified both Medius AI and the Data Protection Authorities about the leak which led to a quick response by the company. However, IT experts and Privacy-focused NGOs commented that Medicus AI was irresponsible and grossly negligent with respect to their security measures leading to the potential disclosure of an enormous amount of sensitive personal health data.

Firefox introduces new tool to prevent cookie-based tracking

12. March 2021

Mozilla has announced the introduction of a new privacy tool for its Firefox browser, “Total Cookie Protection”, aimed at blocking cookie-based tracking by ad-tech companies. The new feature prevents cross-site tracking by confining cookies to the website where they were created and placing them into a so-called “cookie jar”.

Mozilla refers to cookies as “a useful technology, but also a serious privacy vulnerability” because they are shared between websites which enables tracking user’s browsing behavior. This approach allows advertising companies, in particular, to gather information about users, their browsing habits and interests as well as create detailed personal profiles.

Total Cookie Protection works by maintaining a separate “cookie jar”, assigned to each website visited. This procedure prohibits the deposited cookie from being shared with any other website. A limited exception only applies to cross-site cookies needed for non-tracking purposes.

Firefox has blocked some cookies used by ad-tech companies for years in an effort to fight against cookie abuse and web tracking. In order to achieve this goal, “Enhanced Tracking Protection” (ETP) was introduced in 2019. It blocks many of the companies identified as trackers by Mozilla’s partners at Disconnect. Despite being an effective strategy to stop tracking, this form of cookie blocking has its limitations, Johann Hofmann and Tim Huang remark on the developer blog Mozilla Hacks:

ETP protects users from the 3000 most common and pervasive identified trackers, but its protection relies on the fact that the list is complete and always up-to-date. Ensuring completeness is difficult, and trackers can try to circumvent the list by registering new domain names. Additionally, identifying trackers is a time-consuming task and commonly adds a delay on a scale of months before a new tracking domain is added to the list.

With this in view, Total Cookie Protection has been built into ETP as a new privacy advance. The feature intends to address the limitations of ETP and provide more comprehensive protection. It is complemented by Supercookie Protections rolled out last month, which shall eliminate the usage of non-traditional storage mechanisms (“supercookies”) as a tracking vector.

In conclusion, Mozilla stated:

Together these features prevent websites from being able to “tag” your browser, thereby eliminating the most pervasive cross-site tracking technique.

Dutch data scandal: illegal trade of COVID-19 patient data

19. February 2021

In recent months, a RTL Nieuws reporter Daniël Verlaan has discovered widespread trade in the personal data of Dutch COVID-19 test subjects. He found ads consisting of photos of computer screens listing data of Dutch citizens. Apparently, the data had been offered for sale on various instant messaging apps such as Telegram, Snapchat and Wickr. The prices ranged from €30 to €50 per person. The data included home addresses, email addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth and BSN identifiers (Dutch social security number).

The personal data were registered in the two main IT systems of the Dutch Municipal Health Service (GGD) – CoronIT, containing details about citizens who took a COVID-19 test, and HPzone Light, a contact-tracing system, which contains the personal data of people infected with the coronavirus.

After becoming aware of the illegal trade, the GGD reported it to the Dutch Data Protection Authority and the police. The cybercrime team of the Midden-Nederland police immediately started an investigation. It showed that at least two GGD employees had maliciously stolen the data, as they had access to the official Dutch government COVID-19 systems and databases. Within 24 hours of the complaint, two men were arrested. Several days later, a third suspect was tracked down as well. The investigation continues, since the extent of the data theft is unclear and whether the suspects in fact managed to sell the data. Therefore, more arrests are certainly not excluded.

Chair of the Dutch Institute for Vulnerability Disclosure, Victor Gevers, told ZDNet in an interview:

Because people are working from home, they can easily take photos of their screens. This is one of the issues when your administrative staff is working from home.

Many people expressed their disapproval of the insufficient security measures concerning the COVID-19 systems. Since the databases include very sensitive data, the government has a duty to protect these properly in order to prevent criminal misuse. People must be able to rely on their personal data being treated confidentially.

In a press release, the Dutch police also raised awareness of the cybercrime risks, like scam or identity fraud. Moreover, they informed about the possibilities of protection against such crimes and the need to report them. This prevents victims and allows the police to immediately track down suspects and stop their criminal practices.

GDPR fines and data breach reports increased in 2020

12. February 2021

In 2020 a total of €158.5 million in fines were imposed, research by DLA Piper shows. This represents a 39% increase compared to the 20 months the GDPR was previously in force since May 25th, 2018.

Since that date, a total of € 272.5 million in fines have been imposed across Europe under the General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”). Italian authorities imposed a total of € 69.3 million, German authorities € 69.1 million, and French authorities 54.4 million. This calculation does not include two fines against Google LLC and Google Ireland Limited totalling € 100 million  (€ 60million + € 40million) and a fine of € 35 million against Amazon Europe Core issued by the French data protection authority “Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés” (“CNIL”) on December 10th, 2020, (please see our respective blog post), as proceedings on these fines are pending before the Conseil d’Etat.

A total of 281,000 data breaches were reported during this period, although the countries that imposed the highest fines were not necessarily those where the most data breaches were reported. While Germany and the UK can be found in the top of both lists, with 77,747 data breaches reported in Germany, 30,536 in the UK and 66,527 in the Netherlands, only 5,389 data breaches were reported in France and only 3,460 in Italy.

Although the biggest imposed fine to date still is a fine of € 50 million issued by CNIL against Google LLC in January 2019 (please see our respective blog post) a number of high-profile fines were imposed in 2020, with 6 of the top 10 all time fines being issued in 2020 and one in 2021.

1. H&M Hennes & Mauritz Online Shop A.B. & Co. KG was fined € 35 million for monitoring several hundred employees (please see our respective blog post).

2. TIM (Italian telecommunications operator) was fined € 27 million for making unwanted promotion calls.

3. British Airways was fined € 22 million for failing to protect personal and financial data of more than 400,000 customers (please see our blog post)

4. Marriott International was fined € 20 million for a data breach affecting up to 383 million customers (please see our respective blog post)

5. Wind Tre S.p.A. was fined € 17 million for unsolicited marketing communications.

A comparison of the highest fines shows that most of them were imposed due to an insufficient legal basis for the processing of personal data (Art. 5 & 6 GDPR) or due to insufficient technical and organizational measures to ensure an appropriate level of security (Art. 32 GDPR).

While the European authorities have shown their willingness to enforce the GDPR rules, they have also shown leniency due to the impact that the COVID 19 pandemic has had on businesses. At least in part due to the impact of the pandemic, the penalties planned by the UK ICO have been softened. A planned fine of €205 million for British Airways was reduced to €22 million and a planned fine of €110 million for Marriott International was reduced to €20 million. GDPR investigations are also often lengthy and contentious, so the increased fines may in part be due to more investigations having had sufficient time to be completed. For example, the dispute over the above fines for British Airways and Marriott International has already started in 2019.

Not only the fines but also the number of data breach notifications increased in 2020. In 2020 121,165 data breaches were reported, an average of 331 notifications per day, compared to 278 per day in 2019. In terms of reported data breaches per 100,000 inhabitants, there is a stark contrast between Northern and Southern European countries. In 2020, Denmark recorded 155.6 data breaches per 100,000 inhabitants, the Netherlands 150, Ireland 127.8, while Greece, Italy and Croatia reported the lowest number of data breaches per inhabitant.

The trend shows that the GDPR is being taken more and more seriously by companies and authorities, and this trend is likely to continue as authorities become more confident in enforcing the GDPR. Fines are only likely to increase, especially as none of the fines imposed so far even come close to the maximum possible amount of 4% of a company’s global annual turnover. The figures also show that while the laws are in principle the same and are supposed to be applied the same in all EEA countries, nations have different approaches to interpreting and implementing them. In the near future, we can expect to see the first penalties resulting from the GDPR restrictions on data transfers to third countries, especially in the aftermath of the Schrems II ruling on data transfers to the USA.

Hackers access Microsoft source codes

7. January 2021

In December 2020 cybersecurity firm FireEye reported that it had been attacked by what they called a “highly sophisticated cyber threat actor”, during which copies of its red team tool kit were stolen. Also in December, FireEye disclosed that it discovered attacks on SolarWinds’ tool “Orion” while investigating its own security breach. In a SEC filing, SolarWinds said up to 18,000 of 33,000 Orion customers may have been affected. The attacks may have begun in early 2020.

A group believed to be state-sponsored used contaminated updates for the “Orion” network management software. They accessed a SolarWinds system used to update Orion and from there inserted malicious code into legitimate software updates that were then distributed to customers. The affected versions are 2019.4 through 2020.2.1, which were released between March and June 2020. It is still unclear how the attackers initially gained access to SolarWinds’ network. Security researcher Vinoth Kumar stated on Twitter he contacted SolarWinds in 2019 regarding an FTP access uploaded to GitHub in 2018. Using the password “solarwinds123,” he was able to upload a file to the SolarWinds server as proof of the vulnerability.

Agencies and companies that have been penetrated by the Orion software include the U.S. Treasury Department, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the National Nuclear Security Administration, parts of the Pentagon, Belkin, Cisco, Intel, Microsoft, and Nvidia.
The FBI and other U.S. security agencies issued a joint statement calling the attack “significant and ongoing”. Also, agencies and companies in other countries such as Belgium, Canada, Germany, Israel, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates were affected.

So far, it is unclear what damage, if any, was caused by the attacks and what data was accessed. According to reports, in some cases, internal communications were accessed and various documents were copied, with documents relating to ongoing product development, in particular, attracting the attackers’ interest. In an interview published by the U.S. State Department, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo claimed Russia was responsible for the attack.

“This was a very significant effort, and I think it’s the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.”

Among those affected, Microsoft is being most viral regarding the hack. In a blog post published on December 31, the company even admitted that the hackers had access to its source codes. According to that post, they were able to view the code but not modify it. Still, this could pose a significant security risk, as the attackers can now study the software’s architecture and look for possible entry points. Microsoft won’t reveal which tool’s source codes the attackers had access to. It also identified more than 40 of its own customers who were targeted.
Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote:

“This is not just an attack on specific targets but on the trust and reliability of the world’s critical infrastructure in order to advance one nation’s intelligence agency.”

This cyber-attack shows the importance of strong cybersecurity for every company and private user, as even tech-giants and fundamental U.S. authorities were victims of this attack. In particular, access to Microsoft’s source codes could be the ground for further attacks on high- and low-profile targets, as Microsoft’s tools are used in businesses of all sizes and by individuals as well.

CNIL fines Google and Amazon

10. December 2020

The French Data Protection Authority Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertès – “CNIL” – announced that it has fined the big tech companies Google and Amazon due to violations of the GDPR and the French Data Protection Act.

Regarding Google CNIL announced financial penalties of an combined record breaking amount of € 100 million. € 60 million are against Google LLC, the US-based mother company, and € 40 million against Google Ireland Limited, the Irish daughter company. According to the statement of CNIL the fines are based on violations regarding the Cookie requirements on the website google.fr. Due to an online investigation, conducted on March 16th, 2020, CNIL considers it as proven that Google “placed advertising cookies on the computers of users of the search engine google.fr, without obtaining prior consent and without providing adequate information”.

Besides the findings on Cookies, CNIL also critizes a lack of information on the processed personal data and a partial failure of the opposition mechanism.

The high amount of the financial penalties is justified with the seriousness of the violation, the high amount of concerned data subjects and the significant profits of the companies arising of the advertisements.

CNIL also considers the fact, that this procedure is no longer in place since an update in September 2020, because the newly implemented banner does not allow to understand the purposes for which the cookies are used and does not let the data subject know that they can refuse the coolies.

This is already the second, financial penalty CNIL imposes against Google.

Also for violations in connection with cookies CNIL fines Amazon Europe Core a financial penalty of € 35 million. The accusation is the same as with Google and based on several investigations conducted between December 12th, 2019 and May 19th, 2020. CNIL found out, that when a user visited the website, cookies were automatically placed on his or her computer, without any action required on the users part. Several of these cookies were used for advertising purposes. Also a lack of information has been conducted.

The high amount of the financial penalties is in all cases justified with the seriousness of the violation, the high amount of concerned data subjects and the significant profits of the companies arising of the advertisements.

Update: The Council of the European Union publishes recommendations on encryption

8. December 2020

In November, the Austrian broadcasting network “Österreichischer Rundfunk” sparked a controversial discussion by publishing leaked drafts of the Council of the European Union (“EU Council”) on encryption (please see our blog post). After these drafts had been criticized by several politicians, journalists and NGOs, the EU Council published “Recommendations for a way forward on the topic of encryption” on December 1st, in which it considers it important to carefully balance between protecting fundamental rights with ensuring law enforcement investigative powers.

The EU Council sees a dilemma between the need for strong encryption in order to protect privacy on one hand, and the misuse of encryption by criminal subjects such as terrorists and organized crime on the other hand. They further note:

“We acknowledge this dilemma and are determined to find ways that will not compromise
either one, upholding the principle of security through encryption and security despite
encryption.”

The paper lists several intentions that are supposed to help find solutions to this dilemma.

First, it directly addresses EU institutions, agencies, and member states, asking them to coordinate their efforts in developing technical, legal and operational solutions. Part of this cooperation is supposed to be the joint implementation of standardized high-quality training programs for law enforcement officers that are tailored to the skilled criminal environment. International cooperation, particularly with the initiators of the “International Statement: End-to-End Encryption and Public Safety“, is proclaimed as a further intention.

Next the technology industry, civil society and academic world are acknowledged as important partners with whom EU institutions shall establish a permanent dialogue. The recommendations address internet service providers and social media platforms directly, noting that only with their involvement can the full potential of technical expertise be realized. Europol’s EU Innovation Hub and national research and development teams are named key EU institutions for maintaining this dialogue.

The EU Council concludes that the continuous development of encryption requires regular evaluation and review of technical, operational, and legal solutions.

These recommendations can be seen as a direct response to the discussion that arose in November. The EU Council is attempting to appease critics by emphasizing the value of encryption, while still reiterating the importance of law enforcement efficiency. It remains to be seen how willing the private sector will cooperate with the EU institutions and what measures exactly the EU Council intends to implement. This list of intentions lacks clear guidelines, recommendations or even a clearly formulated goal. Instead, the parties are asked to work together to find solutions that offer the highest level of security while maximizing law enforcement efficiency. In summary, these “recommendations” are more of a statement of intent than implementable recommendations on encryption.

16 Million brazilian COVID-19 patients’ personal data exposed online

7. December 2020

In November 2020, personal and sensitive health data of about 16 Million brazilian COVID-19 patients has been leaked on the online platform GitHub. The cause was a hospital employee, that uploaded a spreadsheet with usernames, passwords, and access keys to sensitive government systems on the online platforms. Under those affected were also the brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his family as well as seven ministers and 17 provincial governors.

Under the exposed systems were two government databases used to store information on COVID-19 patients. The first “E-SUS-VE” was used for recording COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms, while the second “Sivep-Gripe” was used to keep track of hospitalized cases across the country.

However, both systems contained highly sensitive personal information such as patient names, addresses, telephone numbers, individual taxpayer’s ID information, but also healthcare records such as medical history and medication regimes.

The leak was discovered after a GitHub user spotted the spreadsheet containing the password information on the personal GitHub account of an employee of the Albert Einstein Hospital in Sao Paolo. The user informed the Brazilian newspaper Estadao, which analysed the information shared on the platform before it notified the hospital and the health ministry of Brazil.

The spreadsheet was ultimately removed from GitHub, while government officials changed passwords and revoked access keys to secure their systems after the leak.

However, Estadao reporters confirmed that the leaked data included personal data of Brazilians across all 27 states.

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