Instant Insider: Harvard Hacker Breaches Network Security By Walking Right In

Written by Frank Hayes
July 27th, 2011

This month brought another reminder that retailers have to defend their networks not just against thieves hacking in—but also against thieves walking in. A Harvard University activist (and fellow at Harvard’s Center for Ethics, for what that’s worth) named Aaron Swartz was indicted this month after he walked into an unguarded basement on the MIT campus, connected a laptop to a switch in a network wiring closet and spent the next two months illegally downloading millions of documents from a university archive.

If that doesn’t sound like a template for your worst security nightmares, just substitute “shopping mall” for campus and “payment-card transactions” for documents. True insiders may be the source of most security problems—such as a fired Gucci network administrator—but when network wiring is unprotected, any thief can become an instant insider. What makes Swartz’s success even more chilling is that MIT’s network security team had spotted and blocked his access a month before. But once Swartz connected directly to the switch, because he was attacking from an unexpected direction, network security didn’t notice for months.

According to the grand jury indictment, Swartz wanted to liberate millions of documents in an MIT archive of academic journals called JSTOR. He spent two weeks in late September and early October 2010 downloading about two million documents at high speed as a falsely registered guest of the system. That brought the servers to a standstill for other users and began a cat-and-mouse game in which network security used a series of increasingly broad measures to block Swartz from the network while he used tricks to change his IP address and spoof the MAC address of his laptop.

But once Swartz discovered the basement wiring closet in November 2010, the stalking ended. According to the indictment, “This time around, Swartz circumvented MIT’s guest registration process altogether when he connected to MIT’s computer network. By this point, Swartz was familiar with the IP addresses available to be assigned at the switch in the restricted network interface closet in the basement of MIT’s Building 16. Swartz simply hard-wired into the network and assigned himself two IP addresses. He hid the Acer laptop and a succession of external storage drives under a box in the closet, so that they would not be obvious to anyone who might enter the closet.”

For the next two months, Swartz returned repeatedly to swap out hard drives as the laptop steadily downloaded another two million articles, this time undetected. He might never have been spotted except that he got nervous when the time came to remove the laptop. “On January 6, 2011, Swartz returned to the wiring closet to remove his computer equipment,” the indictment said.

“This time he attempted to evade identification at the entrance to the restricted area. As Swartz entered the wiring closet, he held his bicycle helmet like a mask to shield his face, looking through ventilation holes in the helmet. Swartz then removed his computer equipment from the closet, put it in his backpack and left, again masking his face with the bicycle helmet before peering through a crack in the double doors and cautiously stepping out.” That afternoon, MIT police spotted and caught him.

Of course, not all retailers depend entirely on technology for securing networks. And not all stores have unguarded basements where a stranger can wander in unnoticed. But the reality is that store and mall security are mainly focused on thieves who walk off with merchandise or individuals who are likely to be disorderly. A well-spoken individual found wandering a back room who says he’s just looking for a restroom? He’ll probably only get an escort back to the public area.

And if he returns to hack into the wiring closet he spotted, you’ll probably never know until it’s too late.



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Most Recent Comments

Why Did Gonzales Hackers Like European Cards So Much Better?

I am still unclear about the core point here-- why higher value of European cards. Supply and demand, yes, makes sense. But the fact that the cards were chip and pin (EMV) should make them less valuable because that demonstrably reduces the ability to use them fraudulently. Did the author mean that the chip and pin cards could be used in a country where EMV is not implemented--the US--and this mis-match make it easier to us them since the issuing banks may not have as robust anti-fraud controls as non-EMV banks because they assumed EMV would do the fraud prevention for them Read more...
Two possible reasons that I can think of and have seen in the past - 1) Cards issued by European banks when used online cross border don't usually support AVS checks. So, when a European card is used with a billing address that's in the US, an ecom merchant wouldn't necessarily know that the shipping zip code doesn't match the billing code. 2) Also, in offline chip countries the card determines whether or not a transaction is approved, not the issuer. In my experience, European issuers haven't developed the same checks on authorization requests as US issuers. So, these cards might be more valuable because they are more likely to get approved. Read more...
A smart card slot in terminals doesn't mean there is a reader or that the reader is activated. Then, activated reader or not, the U.S. processors don't have apps certified or ready to load into those terminals to accept and process smart card transactions just yet. Don't get your card(t) before the terminal (horse). Read more...
The marketplace does speak. More fraud capacity translates to higher value for the stolen data. Because nearly 100% of all US transactions are authorized online in real time, we have less fraud regardless of whether the card is Magstripe only or chip and PIn. Hence, $10 prices for US cards vs $25 for the European counterparts. Read more...
@David True. The European cards have both an EMV chip AND a mag stripe. Europeans may generally use the chip for their transactions, but the insecure stripe remains vulnerable to skimming, whether it be from a false front on an ATM or a dishonest waiter with a handheld skimmer. If their stripe is skimmed, the track data can still be cloned and used fraudulently in the United States. If European banks only detect fraud from 9-5 GMT, that might explain why American criminals prefer them over American bank issued cards, who have fraud detection in place 24x7. Read more...

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