Self-professed "security researcher" Adrian Lamo, 21, has struck again, this time accessing a database holding the personal information of 3,000 New York Times employees, as well as accessing personal information for big-name contributors such as Jimmy Carter, Rush Limbaugh, and Robert Redford.
Lamo surfed in from the Web, scanned the Times' internal network, found an open server, and shortly found seven more. By viewing header information in an auto-responded E-mail, he found references to servers on the internal network and was able to hack into the database. He viewed the personal information and logged himself in as an administrative assistant.
It remains unclear whether the Times could be held liable for the security breach that let Lamo access private information, including Social Security and home phone numbers--information the victims assumed would be secure. "The Times is probably in the clear here, because Adrian Lamo didn't misuse the data. He just went public with the security problems," privacy researcher Richard Smith says. Lamo contacted the Times through a reporter at security Web site SecurityFocus.com.
Lamo, however, could face criminal charges for unauthorized network and system access--something he's well aware of. "I ask people to look at the totality of the actions and draw their own conclusions," he says. But Smith says that Lamo "needs to be real careful with these kinds of demos. Even with the best of intentions, he still poked around on someone else's computer."
Lamo says it was fairly easy to snoop on the Times network, pointing to lax security policy. "For some reason, companies like to authenticate people with things like last name and the last four digits of Social Security numbers. It probably reduces calls to the help desk, but it's not a good practice, especially when you have Social Security numbers lying around in another part of the network."
A New York Times spokeswoman says the newspaper filled the security holes that allowed Lamo entry onto its private network, and the incident is still under investigation. She wouldn't confirm whether or not the Times plans to file a criminal complaint.
To date, Lamo has been lucky: None of his previous targets--WorldCom, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, or [email protected] in law enforcement. In fact, a WorldCom spokeswoman thanked Lamo for bringing the flaw to the company's attention and subsequently helping WorldCom's internal security fix the situation.
Brad McKenzie, director of the national penetration test team with Internet Security Systems Inc., which performs security-assessment tests for clients, says his team is successful roughly 90% of the time when trying to hack into a network. He has his own theory as to why companies don't call law enforcement. "They want to get the event behind them. A major and public security breach is a nightmare, and if you have a court case, that drags it on."
While Lamo says his actions help people, he's not convinced they will lead to improved Internet security for most businesses. Says Lamo, "Will companies see this and all of a sudden wake up to the need of better security? I'm not so sure."