An Underappreciated Threat: The Bored Employee

Written by Evan Schuman
March 4th, 2010

Retail IT is generally on the lookout for cyberthief intruders trying to break into sensitive systems. The disgruntled former employee is another well-known trouble spot, as are the greedy and potentially dishonest current employees who simply exceed access authorization. But one of the most dangerous and often overlooked threats is the bored and honest employee, frequently younger and left in a very monotonous environment with little to no supervision.

Think video store, convenience chain, 24-hour restaurant and gas station. Hacking away out of boredom is a very different profile from someone looking to harm the chain or even steal something to sell later. A recent issue of 2600 magazine, the esteemed hacking periodical, posted a story written by just such a bored employee.

We spoke with the head of the software company that created the victimized POS software, and that person assured us that security changes have now been implemented. Those changes make the anonymous writer’s efforts no longer a threat. Even if that’s true, the article is a wonderful example of how much damage a bored employee can do with just a little time.

After describing his efforts at reviewing confidential data in the system, he thanked the ISV, which he said was “even nice enough to provide a DOS executable in the SYSDATA directory, called vcfview.exe, which will happily open any DAT file and sort it into records for your viewing pleasure.”

Then things got interesting. “The system developer made a big deal about how his system had access controls to prevent unauthorized access, but I found it trivial to simply pull up my store’s list of customers, contracts, special pricing, previous transactions and a whole host of other information just by viewing the raw data files,” the anonymous author wrote. “If you want to wreck real havoc, you can break out your favorite hex editor and change prices or modify receipts, since file modification is fully allowed.”

He references the discovery of an encrypted file, which he cracked in 20 minutes because the developer had merely used a shifted alphabet substitution cipher.

Another interesting point: the data sent to the payment card authorization center was also accessible. “Once the transaction is complete, the answer and request files are deleted. The fact that they are on disk even for a limited amount of time means that you can skim this data fairly easily by simply monitoring the queue directory.”

Backup methods were also leveraged. “The developer thought it prudent to create a backup routine for our store using a series of thumb drives. A simple application waits until a predetermined hour and then copies all of the store’s data onto the drive. Since at least one of these drives is kept in a workstation at all times, it is pretty easy to swipe the drive and have a copy of the data for yourself or your next employer.”

Maybe there’s another investment IT should consider: arcade and Wii machines to keep bored employees occupied.


One Comment | Read An Underappreciated Threat: The Bored Employee

  1. Walt Conway Says:

    I, too, caught that article. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read it. The message for retail CIOs everywhere – and especially franchise operations – is that some pretty weak (i.e., junk) payment systems out there. You don’t want to be buying from the low priced provider; it will be too expensive. In fact, you don’t want to be buying services or payment apps that aren’t on the list of approved service providers (Visa website) or PA-DSS list (PCI Council website).

    My first reaction was that the vendor should be taken to the PCI woodshed (or worse), and the store owner who bought the POS system with him. But on reflection, maybe we should reserve some blame for those bank acquirers and processors who have thus far failed miserably to get the word out to their small/medium merchants that they are at risk and that PCI really does apply to them, too. I see too much of this every day.

    Looks like it’s going to be a pretty crowded woodshed.


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