Data collector threatens scribe who reported breach

Shoot the messenger, Texas-style


A Texas company is threatening to press criminal and civil charges against a Minnesota Public Radio reporter after she uncovered a security lapse that exposed sensitive data for at least 500 people.

Bellaire, Texas-based Lookout Services admits that misconfigurations on its website left databases containing names, dates of birth, and social security numbers accessible to unauthorized individuals. But the company, which verifies the identities of new employees, says MPR and its reporter, Sasha Aslanian, violated criminal statutes when she viewed databases belonging to five of Lookout's customers.

"They breached the security of the database without authorization, which is a serious offense," Gregory Abbott, a Minneapolis attorney representing Lookout, told The Register. "There's both criminal and civil liability attached to that. I would anticipate litigation."

Lookout has already sued the state of Minnesota because one of its employees allegedly leaked details of the vulnerability after learning of it at a company-sponsored webinar.

In an article published Friday, MPR reported that it was "able to access state employee data on Lookout Service's website without using a password" and that the cache included personal details of employees for every Minnesota agency using the service. The state directed all its agencies to stop using the service once the glitch was brought to its attention.

The report went on to say that data from a long list of private companies was also accessible. The exposure continued even after MPR alerted Lookout of the problem, although it has been fixed since then, Abbott said.

There is no evidence any of the data Lookout exposed has been used for nefarious purposes, but Abbott said his client intends to take legal action anyway. Lookout has already reported MPR to law enforcement officials, and he said the company expects to file a civil action against MPR by the end of this year.

In a statement, MPR said: "We are aware of Lookout Services allegations concerning an investigative report by MPR's Sasha Aslanian. Sasha's story exemplified good, solid reporting, and we stand by it."

Little is known about the precise vulnerability that exposed the data. Abbott said his understanding is that it allowed outsiders to view private records by manipulating specific parameters of database URLs.

That account - which sounds like a common website ailment known as predictable resource location - is consistent with details provided by MinnPost.com when it paraphrased Lookout CEO Elaine Morley as saying that people who accessed Lookout databases from MPR computers "added and subtracted things from the web address, finally getting through to the state info."

Abbott said the hack first surfaced during an October webinar for Minnesota employees, during which "a specific hole" was exposed that allowed MPR reporters to get around security. Although Lookout employees fixed it, it would appear that similar holes were allowed to remain.

He rejected the idea that the dispute is a case of Lookout blaming the messenger reporting a vulnerability that could have been exploited by people with motives that were far less pure.

"This is not a hack that could have happened from the outside," he said. "They all started when a client used information from a training that led to a security hole."

Lookout has already sued the state of Minnesota for breach of contract in connection with the vulnerability disclosure. Abbott said the precise elements of the lawsuit he's preparing against MPR are still up in the air, but that it would almost certainly allege that Aslanian violated the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and various Texas statutes.

Lookout CEO Morley said her website was recently audited for security by penetration testers from SecurityMetrics and Adhost.

The dispute underscores the risk whistleblowers face when reporting vulnerabilities on large websites. Webmasters typically demand proof of a flaw before putting much credence in a report, and yet specific examples can open the person disclosing them up to serious liability. Companies such as Microsoft long ago came to recognize the value of outside ethical hackers who responsibly report vulnerabilities on its website with a pledge to insulate them from criminal and civil charges.

It would appear Lookout isn't quite as savvy. If the company prevails, the only people who will know about potential security lapses will be criminal hackers, and they generally don't say much. That's something prospective customers may want to consider before signing on. ®

This article was updated to add information about penetration testing on Lookout's website.

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