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Credit reference agencies faulted for poor patching

Hold our beers, Equifax

Updated Experian and Annual Credit – an organization set up by Equifax, Experian and Transunion to meet US consumer finance regulations – left themselves exposed to a serious vulnerability in Apache Struts earlier this year.

The security shortcoming raises important questions following the disclosure of a mega-breach at Equifax last week that affected data on 143 million Americans and an as-yet unknown number of Canadians and Brits. Equifax only said that an unspecified web application vulnerability gave hackers access to its systems between mid May and late July, when the breach was detected.

A vulnerability in Apache Struts, patched in March, quickly gave rise to the public release of an exploit. That’s a worst-case scenario and ought to have prompted urgent security triage. Left unresolved, the issue create a means for hackers to remotely run code on the web server and access files, potentially (and probably) bypassing all security controls. No authentication would be required.

UK security researcher Kevin Beaumont repeatedly warned about the problem at the time. He wasn’t alone. For example, notified organizations that they were vulnerable, issuing public screenshots of the insides of servers – including of user files, config files, debug logs, etc – to underline its warning.

The screenshots (Experian example here) were only possible because the organizations concerned were unpatched, at least at the time and for a few days afterwards.

Systems affected included servers run by Experian and Annual Credit Report, which is managed by CGI Report.

Screenshots of the insides of these servers have been posted online, so unauthorized access on some level was possible. Whether customer information was actually compromised through that route is a troubling but unanswered question.

“All of this raises serious questions,” Beaumont concludes in a blog post laying out the timeline of the issue. “When were these servers patched? What information was accessed? If consumer information was accessed, have they been notified?”

This blog post talks about how an issue in Apache Struts that arose in March was handled, but it still raises topical questions and concerns about the patching practices at credit reference agencies. We’ve flagged up the blog post to both Experian and CGI Report and invited comment. ®


All the above relates to the handling of a critical Apache Struts vulnerability released in March and not a similarly serious problem addressed earlier this month. The flaw exploited by hackers to break into Equifax remains unknown at the time of writing, despite speculation about various causes (both Apache Struts and SQL injection have been suggested as plausible).

Updated on 18 September to add: The credit reference agency admitted it does use Apache Struts, the tech at the centre of security concerns, but said this was only on a "somewhat limited basis" in various web applications. These systems were patched "within days" of the discovery of a critical vulnerability in the enterprise application back in March, it said.

A spokesperson said: "We continuously review all our systems, including applications utilizing Apache Struts, and patch or remediate any vulnerabilities as necessary, including the vulnerability referenced by Equifax, CVE-2017-5638.

"We applied the patch to this vulnerability in our system within days of the March discovery. As a result, we were not exposed to exploits of this vulnerability."

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