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Flawed USC admissions site allowed access to applicant data
Robert Lemos, SecurityFocus 2005-07-06

A programming error in the University of Southern California's online system for accepting applications from prospective students left the personal information of as many as 280,000 users publicly accessible, school officials confirmed on Tuesday.

The flaw could have allowed an attacker to send commands to the database that powered the site by using the user name and password text boxes. USC's Information Services Division confirmed the problem and shuttered the site this week as a precaution. The university believes only a handful of records were actually accessed and plans to contact each person.

"We need to let everyone in the database know that some data was exposed and give them some direction in reviewing their personal credit information," said Robert Wood Jr., USC's information security officer. "We feel it's the right thing to do."

SecurityFocus notified the university of the issue two weeks ago after being tipped off by the discoverer, who claimed to be a security-savvy student who found the flaw during the process of applying to USC . The university initially removed the log-in functionality from the site for several days, but allowed applicants to log in for most of last week. USC completely blocked access to the site this week.

The potential privacy issues come as other high-profile data leaks among financial institutions has focused attention on organizations' general failures in securing customer information. In the most recent case, MasterCard International outed credit-card processor CardSystems Solutions for failing to secure transactions, leading to tens of thousands of cases of fraud and potentially putting as many as 40 million credit-card accounts at risk.

"Companies and organizations still don't understand the value of what they are protecting, and as a result they are not putting adequate resources towards that protection," said Richard Purcell, CEO of independent privacy consultancy Corporate Privacy Group.

For example, many colleges and universities used a student's social security number as their primary student identifier, until recently, he said. Some schools still have not stopped the practice.

"They are printing social-security numbers on ID cards, transcripts and reports," Purcell said.

The University of Southern California is the latest college in the United States to discover flaws in its online systems. The University of Connecticut notified its students, staff and faculty last week that a computer hacking tool had been found on a server containing 72,000 personal records, including social security numbers, dates of birth, phone numbers, and addresses, according to published reports. In March, Boston College acknowledged that 100,000 records from its alumni database may have been copied, while a laptop owned by a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley and containing personal information on 1.4 million Californians was found to be compromised last October.

Incidents at many other colleges--including the Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Texas at Austin, George Mason University, and the University of California at Los Angeles--have also put personal information at risk.

The vulnerability in USC's online Web application system is a relatively common and well-known software bug, known as database injection or SQL injection. A lack of security checks on user input allows a hostile user to submit a database command rather than a log-in name. The command could cause the database to send its information back to the attacker or aid the attacker in compromising the computer system hosting the database.

The flaw put at risk records containing personal information, including names, birth dates, addresses and social-security numbers, according to the person who discovered the vulnerability. The Web programming error allowed the discoverer, who asked only to be identified by the alias "Sap," to slip commands to the site's database through the log-in interface.

"The authentication process can be bypassed, and you can find the information for any student who has filled out an application online," the discoverer stated in an e-mail to SecurityFocus. "From there, you can view or change profile info, (and get) the person's user name and password combo. Entire tables can be exposed, remote command execution, you name it. Basically, they are owned."

USC's Wood denied that the flaw could have allowed a malicious program to be run.

"The hacker was able to get into the data base and navigate within certain limits, but there is no evidence that they could escalate their own privileges to do any remote command execution or anything of that sort," he said.

The person who discovered the flaw was able to access at least four database records using the vulnerability. The exploit information and the records were forwarded to USC officials two weeks ago by SecurityFocus.

"All this stuff gets back to the fact that we are still building this thing called the Internet and security varies all over the map," said Richard Smith, an independent privacy and security consultant based in Boston. "Some people understand it very well and others don't."

The issue is still being investigated, but under California's Security Breach Information Act, also know as S.B. 1386, organizations that may have disclosed sensitive personal information, including social security numbers, must notify the people affected of the potential breach.

USC said it plans to do so, but has not given a timetable for the disclosure.

This article has been updated with further comment that USC sent to SecurityFocus late Tuesday. The updated article corrects an error in the name of CardSystems Solutions, and amends the number of people potentially infected to 280,000, as 40,000 of the database records were duplicated, according to USC. The original article posted on July 5 at 12:05 p.m. PST.

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