Category: Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

Dec 14 2015

13 Million MacKeeper Users Exposed

The makers of MacKeeper — a much-maligned software utility many consider to be little more than scareware that targets Mac users — have acknowledged a breach that exposed the usernames, passwords and other information on more than 13 million customers and, er…users. Perhaps more interestingly, the guy who found and reported the breach doesn’t even own a Mac, and discovered the data trove merely by browsing Shodan — a specialized search engine that looks for and indexes virtually anything that gets connected to the Internet.

mackeeperIT helpdesk guy by day and security researcher by night, 31-year-old Chris Vickery said he unearthed the 21 gb trove of MacKeeper user data after spending a few bored moments searching for database servers that require no authentication and are open to external connections.

Vickery told Shodan to find all known instances of database servers listening for incoming connections on port 27017. “Ports” are like doorways that govern access into and out of specific areas of a server, and each port number generally maps to one or a handful of known Web applications and services. Port 27017 happens to be associated with MongoDB, a popular database management system.

In short order, Vickery’s request turned up four different Internet addresses, all of which he later learned belonged to Kromtech, the company that makes MacKeeper.

“There are a lot of interesting, educating and intriguing things that you can find on Shodan,” Vickery said. “But there’s a lot of stuff that should definitely not be out there, and when I come across those I try to notify the owner of the affected database.”

Vickery said he reached out the company, which responded quickly by shuttering public access to its user database, and publicly thanking him for reporting it.

“Some 13 million customer records leaked from is aware of a potential vulnerability in access to our data storage system and we are grateful to the security researcher Chris Vickery who identified this issue without disclosing any technical details for public use,” the company said in a statement published to its site totday. “We fixed this error within hours of the discovery. Analysis of our data storage system shows only one individual gained access performed by the security researcher himself. We have been in communication with Chris and he has not shared or used the data inappropriately.”

Kromtech said all customer credit card and payment information is processed by a 3rd party merchant and was never at risk.

“Billing information is not transmitted or stored on any of our servers. We do not collect any sensitive personal information of our customers,” the statement continues. “The only customer information we retain are name, products ordered, license information, public ip address and their user credentials such as product specific usernames, password hashes for the customer’s web admin account where they can manage subscriptions, support, and product licenses.”

Vickery said Kromtech told him its database had been inadvertently exposed as a result of a server misconfiguration that was introduced just last week. But Vickery said he doubts that’s the case, because some of the Shodan records he found that pointed back to Kromtech’s database were dated mid-November 2015.

“The funny thing is, I don’t even own a Mac, and I had never heard of MacKeeper until last night,” Vickery said. “I didn’t know it was some sort of scamming scareware or software that pushes itself on people. The irony here is pretty thick.”

Vickery said he was able to connect to the database that Shodan turned up for him just by cutting and pasting the information into a commercial tool built to browse Mongo databases. Asked whether he’s worried that some clueless organization or overzealous prosecutor might come after him for computer hacking, Vickery said he’s not concerned (for background, see the controversy over bone-headed cases brought against researchers under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act).

“It’s a concern, but I’ve made peace with that and you can’t live your life in fear,” he said. “I feel pretty confident that if you configure a server for public access — without authentication — and it gets publicly accessed, that’s not a crime.”

I admire Vickery’s courage and straightforward approach, and his story is a good reminder about the importance of organizations using all of the resources available to them to find instances of public access to sensitive or proprietary data that shouldn’t be public.  Consider taking the time to learn how to use Shodan (it’s actually fairly intuitive, but some data may only be available to paying subscribers); use it to see if your organization has unnecessarily exposed databases, networking devices, security cameras and other “Internet of Things” devices.

Finally, if you’re a MacKeeper customer and you re-used your MacKeeper user password at other sites, it’s now time change that password at the other sites — and not just to your new MacKeeper password! For more password do’s and don’ts, check out this primer.

Mar 20 2013

Andrew Auernheimer AKA Weev Gets 41 Months Jail Time For GET Requests

This is a pretty sad case, and one which I’m sure all of us have followed since it first started. Surprisingly it hasn’t gotten a whole lot of media attention, but then this legal precedent sticks it to the man and has some consequences regarding the infosec industry – and who would want to publicize [...] The post Andrew...

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Sep 18 2012

Feds Charge Activist with 13 Felonies for Rogue Downloading of Academic Articles

Photo: selfagency/Flickr

Federal prosectors added nine new felony counts against well-known coder and activist Aaron Swartz, who was charged last year for allegedly breaching hacking laws by downloading millions of academic articles from a subscription database via an open connection at MIT.

Swartz, the 25-year-old executive director of Demand Progress, has a history of downloading massive data sets, both to use in research and to release public domain documents from behind paywalls. He surrendered in July 2011, remains free on bond and faces dozens of years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted.

Like last year’s original grand jury indictment on four felony counts, (.pdf) the superseding indictment (.pdf) unveiled Thursday accuses Swartz of evading MIT’s attempts to kick his laptop off the network while downloading millions of documents from JSTOR, a not-for-profit company that provides searchable, digitized copies of academic journals that are normally inaccessible to the public.

Using a program named, the scraping took place from September 2010 to January 2011 via MIT’s network, and was invasive enough to bring down JSTOR’s servers on several occasions, according to the indictment.

Disclosure: Swartz was part of a small team that sold Reddit to Condé Nast, Wired’s parent company, and has done coding work for Wired.

In essence, many of the charges stem from Swartz allegedly breaching the terms of service agreement for those using the research service.

“JSTOR authorizes users to download a limited number of journal articles at a time,” according to the latest indictment. “Before being given access to JSTOR’s digital archive, each user must agree and acknowledge that they cannot download or export content from JSTOR’s computer servers with automated programs such as web robots, spiders, and scrapers. JSTOR also uses computerized measures to prevent users from downloading an unauthorized number of articles using automated techniques.”

MIT authorizes guests to use the service, which was the case with Swartz, who at the time was a fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics.

The case tests the reach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was passed in 1984 to enhance the government’s ability to prosecute hackers who accessed computers to steal information or to disrupt or destroy computer functionality.

The government, however, has interpreted the anti-hacking provisions to include activities such as violating a website’s terms of service or a company’s computer usage policy, a position a federal appeals court in April said means “millions of unsuspecting individuals would find that they are engaging in criminal conduct.” The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in limiting reach of the CFAA, said that violations of employee contract agreements and websites’ terms of service were better left to civil lawsuits.

The rulings by the 9th Circuit cover the West, and not Massachusetts, meaning they are not binding in Swartz’ prosecution. The Obama administration has declined to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

The indictment accuses Swartz of repeatedly spoofing the MAC address — an identifier that is usually static — of his computer after MIT blocked his computer based on that number. The grand jury indictment also notes that Swartz didn’t provide a real e-mail address when registering on the network. Swartz also allegedly snuck an Acer laptop bought just for the downloading into a closet at MIT in order to get a persistent connection to the network.

Aug 10 2012

DOJ Won’t Ask Supreme Court to Review Hacking Case

Photo: TheRealDavidFrancis/Flickr

The Justice Department has decided not to ask the Supreme Court to review a controversial federal appeals court decision that said employees may not be prosecuted under a federal anti-hacking statute for simply violating their employer’s computer use policy.

The 9-2 decision in April by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dealt a blow to the Obama administration, which is invoking the same theory to prosecute alleged WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning.

The case concerns the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was passed in 1984 to enhance the government’s ability to prosecute hackers who accessed computers to steal information or to disrupt or destroy computer functionality.

At least, that’s what the San Francisco-based appeals court said was the act’s purpose.

The government, however, has interpreted the anti-hacking provisions to include activities such as violating a website’s terms of service or a company’s computer usage policy, a position the court ruled means “millions of unsuspecting individuals would find that they are engaging in criminal conduct.” The court said that violations of employee contract agreements and websites’ terms of service were better left to civil lawsuits.

“Under the government’s proposed interpretation of the CFAA, posting for sale an item prohibited by Craigslist’s policy, or describing yourself as ‘tall, dark and handsome,’ when you are actually short and homely, will earn you a handsome orange jumpsuit,” Judge Alex Kozinski wrote for the majority, adding in a footnote that the government’s interpretation of the law opens employees up to be arrested, not merely fired, for playing Farmville at work.

The act makes it a federal offense if one “knowingly and with intent to defraud, accesses a protected computer without authorization, or exceeds authorized access, and by means of such conduct furthers the intended fraud and obtains anything of value, unless the object of the fraud and the thing obtained consists only of the use of the computer and the value of such use is not more than $5,000 in any 1-year period.”

Orin Kerr, a George Washington University Law School scholar and considered one of the leading experts on the topic, suggested the government did not appeal because it “may have been scared off by Judge Kozinski’s opinion.”

“It would have been the first document that the justices read, and it’s a pretty powerful brief against the government’s position,” he said.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to comment on its decision not to appeal. (.pdf)

The case before the appeals court concerned an appeal by defendant David Nosal, who had worked for an executive search firm and was charged with, among other crimes, three CFAA counts for allegedly aiding and abetting his former colleagues to supply him with company data that his co-workers were authorized to access but forbidden to divulge. The decision by the nation’s largest federal appeals court, which covers the western United States, reversed the same circuit’s 2-1 ruling last year that said no hacking was required to be prosecuted as a hacker under the CFAA.

The 9th Circuit covers Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

The outcome conflicts with at least three other circuit courts of appeal nationwide. Had the government appealed, the Supreme Court likely would have taken the case to clear up the conflicts. But so far, the Supreme Court remains sidelined on the issue.

Accused WikiLeaks leaker Manning is charged with, among other things, breaching the CFAA by allegedly exceeding his authorized access of a government computer and providing files to secret-spilling site WikiLeaks. The prosecution doesn’t allege, however, that Manning actually broke into any computer system. But Manning is being prosecuted at Ft. Meade in Maryland, outside the reach of the 9th Circuit’s decision.

The statute was used to prosecute Lori Drew, who was charged criminally for participating in a MySpace cyberbullying scheme against a 13-year-old Missouri girl who later committed suicide. The Los Angeles federal court case against Drew hinged on the government’s argument that violating MySpace’s terms of service was the legal equivalent of computer hacking and a violation of the CFAA. A federal judge who presided over the prosecution tossed the guilty verdicts in July 2009, and the government declined to appeal.

However, the feds used the same theory to get hacking convictions of two New Jersey men who used computer scripts to help them buy, with real money, lots of concert tickets from, which they later scalped.

But the appeals court plainly said breaking company computer-use policies does not amount to hacking.

Minds have wandered since the beginning of time and the computer gives employees new ways to procrastinate, by gchatting with friends, playing games, shopping or watching sports highlights. Such activities are routinely prohibited by many computer-use policies, although employees are seldom disciplined for occasional use of work computers for personal purposes. Nevertheless, under the broad interpretation of the CFAA, such minor dalliances would become federal crimes. While it’s unlikely that you’ll be prosecuted for watching Reason. TV on your work computer, you could be. Employers wanting to rid themselves of troublesome employees without following proper procedures could threaten to report them to the FBI unless they quit.

Kozinski was joined by Judges Harry Pregerson, M. Margaret McKeown, Kim McLane Wardlaw, Ronald M. Gould, Richard A. Paez, Richard R. Clifton, Jay S. Bybee and Mary Murguia.

In dissent, Judge Barry Silverman, joined by Richard C. Tallman, wrote: “In ridiculing scenarios not remotely presented by this case, the majority does a good job of knocking down straw men — far-fetched hypotheticals involving neither theft nor intentional fraudulent conduct, but innocuous violations of office policy. The majority also takes a plainly written statute and parses it in a hyper-complicated way that distorts the obvious intent of Congress. No other circuit that has considered this statute finds the problems that the majority does.”

While Nosal, the defendant in the case, escaped the hacking charges, he is also accused of trade secret theft, mail fraud and other charges. Trial is pending in San Francisco federal court.