Security holes in the New York Times internal network left sensitive
databases exposed to hackers, including a file containing Social Security
numbers and home phone numbers for contributors to the Times op-ed page,
SecurityFocus Online has learned.
In a two-minute scan performed on a whim, twenty-one-year-old hacker and
sometimes-security consultant Adrian Lamo discovered no less than seven
misconfigured proxy servers acting as doorways between the public Internet
and the Times' private intranet, making the latter accessible to anyone
capable of properly configuring their Web browser.
"The very first server I looked at was running an open proxy," says Lamo.
"The server practically approached me."
Once on the newspaper's network, Lamo exploited
weaknesses in the Times password policies to broaden his access, eventually
browsing such disparate information as the names and Social Security numbers
of the paper's employees, logs of home delivery customers' stop and start
orders, instructions and computer dial-ups for stringers to file stories,
lists of contacts used by the Metro and Business desks, and the "WireWatch"
keywords particular reporters had selected for monitoring wire services.
But measured by sheer star power, the hack is most notable for Lamo's access
to a database of 3,000 contributors to the Times op-ed page, the august soap
box of the cultural elite and politically powerful.
The roster includes Social Security numbers for former U.N. weapons
inspector Richard Butler, Democratic operative James Carville, ex-NSA chief
Bobby Inman, Nannygate veteran Zoe Baird, former secretary of state James
Baker, Internet policy thinker Larry Lessig, and thespian activist Robert
Redford, who last May authored an op-ed on President Bush's environmental
Entries with home telephone numbers include Lawrence Walsh, William F.
Buckley Jr., Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Rush Limbaugh, Vint Cerf, Warren Beatty and
former president Jimmy Carter.
The database includes details on contributors' areas of expertise and what
books they've written, and the odd note on how easily they succumb to
editing or how much they were paid.
Lamo notified the Times of the vulnerabilities Tuesday through a reporter,
and provided them with a list of the open proxies. In a statement, a
spokesperson for the paper said the Times takes security "very seriously."
"We are actively investigating a potential security breach," wrote Times
spokesperson Christine Mohan. "Based on the results of this investigation we
will take appropriate steps to ensure the security of our network."
HACKER'S HELPFUL HISTORY
Adrian Lamo has built an unusual reputation exposing security holes at large
corporations, then voluntarily helping them fix the vulnerabilities he
exploited -- sometimes visiting their offices or signing non-disclosure
agreements in the process.
In December, Lamo was praised by communications giant WorldCom after he
discovered, then helped close, security holes in their intranet that
threatened to expose the private networks of Bank of America, CitiCorp, JP
Morgan, and others.
In September, the hacker used a vulnerable Web-based production tool to
tamper with a wire service story on Yahoo! News, deliberately choosing an
old story to minimize the impact.
The hacker professes relief at discovering that the Times intranet afforded
him no similar opportunity to modify stories in the paper's print edition,
without clearing human hurdles in the Times editorial process. "It's really
better for everybody if the New York Times has the ability to runs something
unusually every now and then without people checking it for my writing
style," says Lamo.
The newspaper's public Web site -- the target of a high-profile defacement
in 1998 -- is outsourced, and wasn't affected by the vulnerabilities.
Lamo says he began his excursion at a proxy in the Times home delivery
department and scanned the newspaper's IP address range for Web servers.
"The proxy was on a different network, dealing with management of
subscription information, but it was trusted by their internal network,"
says Lamo. He quickly found the intranet homepage, and an unprotected copy
of a database that cataloged employees' names and Social Security numbers.
"From what I've been able to tell, it was a backup database being used for
Armed with that information, the hacker could use the intranet account of
any employee that hadn't changed their password from the default -- the last
four digits of the person's Social Security number. One of those belonged to
a worker that had the power to create new accounts, so Lamo set up his own
account on the network with higher privileges.
From there, it was a short hop to the op-ed database.
"This is sort of a situation where security and privacy intersect," says
David Sobel, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center
(EPIC). "One of the concerns with the online availability of personal
information is the lack of security that often surrounds those kinds of
systems... There's an ethical obligation to protect this data, given the
harm that can result in the form of identity theft from obtaining a Social
This isn't the first time personal information on the rich and powerful has
been compromised by weak network security. One year ago, anti-globalization
hackers penetrated a database maintained by the World Economic Forum, and
downloaded similar data on attendees of the group's summit on global
economic trends in Davos, Switzerland, including Bill Gates, Bill Clinton,
South African President Thabo Mbeki and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro
But with the Times hack Lamo may have gone one better. Rather than merely
crossing the information wake left by the elite, Lamo says he actually
joined their ranks, creating his own entry in the 'L' section of the Times
database, complete with his real name, cell phone number, and email address.
In the space set aside for a description of the contributor's expertise,
Lamo wrote, "Computer hacking, national security, communications
intelligence." By Kevin Poulsen