Dragusin said in a blog post that he basically stumbled across the data goldmine, a plaintext log with usernames and passwords made publicly available via IEEE's FTP server. The IEEE, a global standards-making organization in the fields of nanotechnology, IT, telecommunications, energy, and biomedical and healthcare (and developer of the WiFi standard) has a range of marquee members including representatives from NASA, Stanford, IBM, Google, Apple, Oracle, Microsoft, Samsung and more.
According to Dragusin, he discovered the vulnerability on Sept. 18, and informed the organization on Sept. 24. The IEEE is closing the hole, it said.
"This is a significant data breach: 100,000 usernames and passwords kept in plaintext and left unprotected on an FTP server,” said Paul Ayers, vice president for EMEA at data security expert Vormetric, in an emailed statement. “With servers holding the 'crown jewels' of operational information, neglecting to ensure access control of server data is a security failure; that is a data breach waiting to happen. In this case, it happened.”
The IEEE files were chronicled when members entered their usernames and passwords on the IEEE site, thus logging personally identifiable credentials, IP addresses and HTTP requests of the visitors. This information was then stored unencrypted in a user-accessible folder.
The mistakes made in this particular data breach appear to be twofold, Ayers noted. “First, a failure to take account of the nature of the data amassed and second, a subsequent failure to restrict access to the data…Given the sensitivity of the information, this was not a best practice scenario.”
The breach did not provide access to any sensitive financial information, the IEEE said, but it did give public access to IEEE accounts. The organization is urging its members to change their passwords immediately.
Organizations are under intense scrutiny from the public and data protection watchdogs, with some authorities continuing to deliver sizable financial penalties against organizations that fall foul of data protection laws.
“Data is the lifeblood of an organization and the ramifications of a failure to protect such information are extremely negative – something which the IEEE is yet to feel the full weight of,” said Ayers. “If this incident teaches us anything, it's that enterprises need to reconsider what is sensitive data, understand where that data resides, and take proactive measures to secure the sensitive data."