The data breach at credit bureau Equifax has gotten a lot of attention in the last week. It seems that the company has been guilty of at least two significant blunders: unpatched software and default authentication credentials.
Equifax has at least one web application built on Apache Struts, a category of software called a web application framework. Web developers use frameworks to build their applications, because the frameworks provide components common to many web applications, components that do things like handling input typed into a web form, generating HTML for web pages, etc. Frameworks allow web developers to skip over routine tasks and focus on the business logic specific to the application.
Like any software, frameworks have versions and updates. Equifax was using a version of Struts that had at least one serious and widely-known security vulnerability. When the Struts developers (not Equifax, but the people who make the Struts framework) became aware of the vulnerability, they released an update to the Struts framework. The Struts developers released this update months prior to the Equifax data breach. For whatever reason, Equifax didn’t update Struts on their site.
Default authentication credentials
Equifax hosts a web application that their Argentinian employees use to manage credit report data. That web application had a poor choice of authentication credentials: the username was admin, and the password was also admin. Logging in with those credentials allowed an attacker to retrieve the usernames and passwords of Equifax employees, which would in turn allow the attacker to retrieve Equifax customer information.
How does this happen?
Why didn’t Equifax apply the Struts update? A few possibilities come to mind:
- The didn’t know about the update. Equifax must have developers, system administrators, and security analysts. Maybe they were all blissfully ignorant of the update for over four months.
- Maybe the update was incompatible with the web application they built on the Struts framework. If that were the case, they should have identified and fixed the problem and then run the update. That might take days, but it shouldn’t take months.
- They probably have change control processes that delay an update. They wouldn’t immediately run the update on their live production servers. First they’d load it in a test environment, and then they’d test their application after applying the Struts update. But that should take at most days, and probably hours, especially with an update that addresses serious security vulnerabilities.
None of these is an excuse for waiting months to run the update, and there’s really no defending the admin/admin thing at all.
What this might mean to you
Brian Krebs has been a long-time advocate for security freezes, and I’m considering doing this. The only reason I haven’t done this yet is that it just seems like one more pain in the ass when my day job, the current political climate, and other stuff leave me wanting to do little more than read a book or sit in front of the TV binge-watching The Flash and Supergirl (which is why I haven’t been posting on this blog much lately).
The implications of the Equifax breach to a story-teller are obvious enough. If your character needs to break into a web site or computer network, she should look for out-of-date software or default authentication credentials. This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen to a big company that should know better about how to protect the personal information of millions of people. But it does happen, which can make it a plausible plot device in your fiction. I see that nmap has a test to look specifically for the Struts vulnerability found on the Equifax site, and there are plenty of open-source tools to run brute-force password attacks.
The implications of the breach on a computer user are obvious, too. This is why it’s so important to run software updates on everything. Criminals are well aware of security vulnerabilities and are actively exploiting them. We all need to be running updates:
1. operating system and application software updates on our computers and mobile devices
2. firmware updates on the routers we use for our broadband internet connections
3. updates to self-hosted blogging software like wordpress (plugins, too)
And we need to be picking good passwords for everything. Did you ever change the password on your broadband router? Does “facebook” appear in your facebook password?