By Jaikumar Vijayan
MARCH 30, 2006
An unpatched flaw in a "widely used security program" was exploited by
an unknown hacker to gain access to a Georgia Technology Authority
(GTA) database containing confidential information on more than
570,000 members of the state's pension plans.
The intrusion occurred sometime between Feb. 21 and Feb. 23 and
involved a hacker who used "sophisticated hacking tools" to break
through several layers of security after accessing the server hosting
the database via the software flaw, said Joyce Goldberg, a GTA
Goldberg refused to name the security vendor whose software was
exploited, citing an ongoing investigation. She added, however, that
the vulnerability exploited by the hacker had already been publicly
disclosed by the vendor,
"We were in the midst of fixing the flaw that the software vendor had
identified. But the hacker got in before we were able to do that," she
said. "Shortly after the breach, we saw some unusual activity, and in
looking at that, we discovered the breach."
Goldberg declined to elaborate on what that unusual activity was.
The breached server contained information on a total of eight pension
plans administered by the state. The core database itself was managed
by the state Employees Retirement System, though the server it was
hosted on was administered by the GTA.
At this point, there is no evidence that confidential information,
including names, Social Security numbers and bank-account details,
have been misused, Goldberg said.
Even so, the GTA is sending out letters to 180,000 affected employees
for whom it has contact information, she said. The state does not have
current addresses for the remaining 373,000 individuals affected and
is relying on media reports and its own outreach efforts to inform
them of the potential compromise of data, Goldberg said.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is investigating the incident. The
GTA is also bringing in outside security advisers to do a security
assessment, the agency said in a note posted on its site.
This is the second major breach involving the GTA in the past year. In
April 2005, the GTA disclosed that a state employee had downloaded
confidential information belonging to more than 450,000 members of the
state's health benefit plan onto a home computer.
Since that breach, the GTA has implemented several measures to tighten
security, including stricter password controls, more timely reviews of
logs and alerts, more extensive employee background checks and
stricter control of access confidential data, according to the GTA's
Incidents such as this highlight the dangers companies face when the
software they rely on to protect their data itself turns bad, said
Lloyd Hession, vice president and chief technology officer at BT
Radianz, a New York-based provider of telecommunications services to
"The most important point to remember [from such incidents] is that
you don't want to be overly dependent on a single vendor's product"
for security, Hession said.
Earlier this month, a faulty antivirus update from McAfee Inc.
mistakenly identified hundreds of legitimate programs as a Windows
virus, resulting in the accidental deletion of significant amounts of
data from company computers that had the faulty software installed on
Two years ago, the Witty worm, which was reported to have damaged
15,000 to 20,000 computers worldwide, took advantage of a flaw
involving the BlackIce and RealSecure intrusion-prevention products
from Atlanta-based Internet Security Systems Inc. The worm wrote
random data onto the hard disks of vulnerable systems, causing the
drives to fail and making it impossible for users to start up the
Such incidents highlight quality lapses that sometimes occur when
security vendors try to rush out products to keep up with security
threats, Hession said. "Security vendors have to adapt very quickly to
new threats," resulting in very short development and testing cycles,
With security products, "the perception is that it should be more
reliable than other software," which is not always the case, said Ken
Dunham, director of the rapid response team at VeriSign Inc.'s
iDefense Labs unit. IT managers need to remember that all software is
susceptible to errors that pose security risks, he said.
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