An enormous security breach was discovered at the end of April affecting more than 80 million American households. It is yet another example in a string of breaches demonstrating the vulnerability of online database platforms. The owner of the database is yet to be identified and researchers at VPNMentor, who discovered the breach, are asking for assistance from the public to help them find the owner.
The good news is that the database did not contain credit card information, social security numbers or passwords. However, it was thoroughly unprotected, hosted on a Microsoft cloud server, and required no password to access the data files.
VPNMentor Found the Unprotected Database by Accident
Hacker experts at VPNMentor, Ran Locar and Noam Rotem found the database by accident. VPNMentor researchers were running a routine web mapping project, looking for holes in web systems. They were using a port scanning tool which locates weaknesses and finds data leaks. When they find a database with leaks, they typically contact the owner so immediate action can be taken to correct the problem. But in this case, the database did not identify its owner. Even though there is an IP address associated with this database, the researchers say it does not necessarily lead to its owner.
A Staggering Number of Households Were Exposed
The fact that 80 million US households were exposed in this breach is very troubling. This is almost 65 per cent of the entire number of American households. The database contains 24 gigabytes of highly detailed information, including full addresses, names, birth dates, ages, and residences.
The coded information which is contained in numerical values appears to relate to marital status, income, gender, and dwelling category. Since each database entry ends with “score” and “member code” and everyone listed appears to be over the age of 40, researchers believe that the database owner might be a mortgage, insurance or healthcare company. The fact that social security numbers are missing from the database, as well as payment information and account numbers, makes it unlikely that the owner is a bank or broker.
For now, the unsecured database is offline. Researchers did not download all the data, although they did verify some segments in the cache for accuracy. It was more important to protect the already exposed accounts from further invasion.
Hoping for Some Help from the Public
VPNMentor researchers stress that even though the database did not contain social security numbers or credit card information, there is still a significant risk of nefarious activities with the data that was exposed. Affected households are vulnerable to phishing scams, fraud, identity theft and possibly even home invasions since addresses are included. They sent out a plea to the public for assistance in identifying the owner of the database so that steps can be taken as soon as possible to secure the data.
This is not the first time Noam Rotem has been involved in uncovering a potentially serious data breach. Earlier this year, he discovered a very damaging vulnerability in the Amadeus online air travel booking system. The platform’s security vulnerability would have made it easy for hackers to access the database, alter customer bookings and steal airline mileage credits.