IEEE data breach demonstrates need for increased server-level security

According to news reports, the usernames and passwords of 100,000 members of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) have been found unencrypted on a FTP server by a Romanian researcher, Radu Dragusin.

As many IEEE members are security professionals, with some known to work for leading companies such as Apple, Google, IBM, Oracle, Samsung and NASA, this breach demonstrates a considerable failure in server level security.

Paul Ayers, VP EMEA, of data security expert Vormetric has made the following comments:

This is a significant data breach: 100,000 usernames and passwords kept in plaintext and left unprotected on an FTP server. 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.

In this particular incident, and with the information we know so far, the biggest mistakes appear to be twofold. First, a failure to take account of the nature of the data amassed and second, a subsequent failure to restrict access to the data. 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 an user accessible folder. Given the sensitivity of the information, this was not a best practice scenario.

Organisations are under intense scrutiny from the public and data protection watchdogs – with the ICO continuing to deliver sizable financial penalties against organisations that fall foul of data protection laws. Data is the lifeblood of an organisation 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.

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.

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