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First State Super Trustee Corporation: Own motion investigation report

June 2012
Timothy Pilgrim, Privacy Commissioner

Overview

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) opened an investigation after it was reported in the media[1] that an unauthorised person had intentionally accessed the secure section of the First State Super Trustee Corporation (FSS) website and downloaded personal information belonging to 568 FSS members. This person's intention was to expose a weakness in FSS systems.

The Privacy Commissioner’s (the Commissioner) investigation focused on whether FSS’s handling of the personal information held in its computer systems was consistent with the National Privacy Principles contained in Schedule 3 of the Privacy Act 1988 (Privacy Act). Those principles include requirements about when personal information may be disclosed (NPP 2), and that security measures must be in place to protect the personal information (NPP 4).

In light of the information gathered from FSS, the Commissioner took the view that the above incident did not amount to an improper disclosure of customer information on the part of FSS.

However, the Commissioner concluded that at the time of the incident, FSS did not have adequate security measures in place to protect the information held from misuse and from unauthorised access and disclosure. While it is acknowledged that upon becoming aware of the matter, FSS took immediate steps to remedy the situation, this still resulted in a breach of the National Privacy Principles (NPPs) in the Privacy Act.

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Background

On 21 September 2011, the secure section of the FSS website was accessed by an unauthorised person. It was alleged that the unauthorised person then downloaded 568 members’ statements from the site. It was also alleged that this person contacted FSS volunteering this information and promoting himself as a ‘white hat’ hacker intending to improve their computer security. He also stated that he runs a business specialising in firewall penetration and vulnerability assessment.

At the time of the incident, members’ personal information was contained in the secure section of FSS’s website and was not published in a form easily accessible to the general public. In fact, FSS has indicated that specific knowledge of the vulnerabilities of the system would be required to access member information.

Upon becoming aware of the breach, Pillar Administration (Pillar), an organisation contracted to manage FSS administrative duties (including the member section of the FSS website), immediately rectified the security issue. The next day, Pillar informed FSS of the incident and opened an investigation into the matter.

FSS and Pillar took a number of steps to protect the personal information of FSS members, in response to this incident. Specifically, they:

  • contained the breach by working to repair the flaw in its system and resolving the matter on the same day
  • established the number and identities of affected members
  • notified the affected members of the incident, providing them with the option of changing their member login numbers
  • contacted NSW Police to report the incident
  • secured a statutory declaration from the hacker, stating he had destroyed all member information
  • engaged an external IT specialist to conduct further penetration testing of its systems and has since implemented this specialist’s recommendations
  • updated their policies and processes to address this issue

Following media reports of this incident, the OAIC opened an own motion investigation on 19 October 2011. FSS advised the OAIC in the course of this investigation that the personal information downloaded included member names and addresses, details of superannuation account transactions and balances and the member’s current age. This information did not include dates of birth, tax file numbers or bank account details.

FSS has implemented measures since the incident, to address the breach. FSS has advised that it engaged the services of a specialist IT consultant to conduct web penetration tests to determine the security of all its sites. Following its testing, on 28 November 2011, the IT consultant provided FSS with a report concerning all sites Pillar manages for FSS. Seven recommendations were made that were classified by the IT Consultant as Low or Medium vubnerabilities. No High Risk vulnerabilities were identified. FSS implemented all seven recommendations made by the IT consultant by 31 January 2012.

Pillar has enhanced its own security measures since the incident, by employing a security expert and by broadening the scope of its regular IT audits. These audits include conducting tests to assess the robustness of applications, performing a firewall review, as well as having an internal security review.

Finally, FSS has reviewed its policies and procedures to identify any areas where security may be improved.

There is currently no ongoing legal action against the hacker by either FSS or NSW police. Although the hacker offered his services to FSS, FSS has confirmed it has no business or contractual relationship with him.

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Relevant provisions of the Privacy Act

The Privacy Act contains 10 National Privacy Principles (NPPs) that regulate the way that organisations handle ‘personal information' about individuals.
The Commissioner's investigation focused on whether the handling of personal information in FSS’s computer system was consistent with:

  • NPP 2 (use and disclosure)—in particular NPP 2.1, which provides that an organisation must only use or disclose personal information for the primary purpose for which it was collected, unless at least one of a number of exceptions apply
  • NPP 4 (data security)—in particular NPP 4.1, which requires organisations to take ‘reasonable steps' to protect the personal information they hold from misuse and loss and from unauthorised access, modification or disclosure.

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Findings

NPP 2 Use and disclosure

The Commissioner found that FSS members’ personal information was compromised as a result of the hacker uncovering a weakness in its systems. The hacker was a member of FSS and he had to identify himself and use his personal password to access the member site. The weakness in the system was not exposed to the general public, only to members of FSS.

The hacker identified himself to FSS, outlining details of the weakness he had found in their systems and offering his professional services to FSS. The hacker also informed them that he had an IT security background and he ran a business specialising in firewall penetration and vulnerability assessment.

In general terms an organisation discloses personal information when it releases information to others outside the organisation. The Commissioner concluded that, while the personal information was accessed by an unauthorised party; it was done so because of specific knowledge of the vulnerabilities of the FSS system. As actions to obtain the information were taken by an individual with that knowledge outside the control of FSS, this incident did not amount to an improper disclosure of personal information by FSS.

NPP 4 Data security

In order for an organisation to be compliant with NPP 4.1, it must take reasonable steps to protect the personal information it holds from misuse and loss and from unauthorised access, modification or disclosure.

In assessing whether FSS took reasonable steps to comply with NPP 4.1, the Commissioner reviewed the overall security safeguards put in place by FSS prior to and following the incident.

Generally, organisations will need to have a range of security safeguards in place to protect the information they hold. Such safeguards could include:

  • physical security measures that, for example, only allow authorised persons to enter the premises
  • secure storage and destruction facilities for personal information
  • computer and network security measures
  • communication security measures, for example, measures that protect emails from unauthorised intrusion and interception
  • security protocols which include policies and procedures regulating how staff and others with access to personal information will access and handle that information.

At the time the incident occurred, FSS had contracted Pillar to manage its day to day administrative duties, including managing member records and maintaining the online area for members.

Security measures included the internal auditor of Pillar conducting security testing of its systems. Over 200 security tests were conducted by them prior to the incident occurring, which did not reveal the flaw in FSS’s systems. However, the testing involved only a sample of FSS’s activity, and as a result, the area of the website containing the vulnerability was not tested.

The Commissioner acknowledged that FSS’s security systems were successful in identifying an issue with its server prior to FSS being contacted by the hacker. Specifically, Pillar’s website monitoring system did detect an abnormality in its server logs on the morning of the incident.

In the Commissioner’s view, FSS would therefore have had the capacity to remedy this flaw in its system, even if it had not been advised of the vulnerability by the hacker. However, because testing was limited, the vulnerability was not discovered until it had already been exploited. The Commissioner therefore concluded that FSS breached NPP 4.1 of the Privacy Act by failing to have adequate security measures in place to protect the personal information it held.

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Conclusion

On the basis of the information available to the Commissioner, he formed the view that the incident was not a disclosure in breach of NPP 2.1. However, he considered that, at the time of the incident, FSS had not taken reasonable steps to put in place security measures to protect the personal information it held in the member area of its online system. For this reason, the Commissioner formed the view that, at the time of the incident, FSS was in breach of NPP 4.1.

The Commissioner acknowledges that upon becoming aware of this matter, FSS’s administrative manager, Pillar and FSS itself acted immediately to contain the incident, commenced an internal investigation of the incident, reviewed data security practices and sought external advice on how to handle the situation. Many of these steps are recommended by the OAIC in its Data breach notification guide. Consequently, the Commissioner ceased his own motion investigation into this matter, on the basis that the response to this incident appears adequate in the circumstances. The Commissioner’s file on the matter is now closed.

The OAIC has not received any individual complaints in relation to this matter.

The OAIC has advised FSS that should individual complaints be received about this matter, each complaint will be considered and information gathered as part of this investigation will be taken into account in any subsequent investigation.

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Acronyms and abbreviations

Commissioner — Privacy Commissioner

Cth — Commonwealth

FSS — First State Super

NPPs — National Privacy Principles (contained in Schedule 3 of the Privacy Act 1988)

OAIC — Office of the Australian Information Commissioner

Pillar — Pillar Administration

Privacy Act — Privacy Act 1988

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Footnotes

[1]NSW cops quiz Aussie security researcher’ published 13 October 2011, on Risky.Biz, http://risky.biz/fss_idiots

Super bad: First State set police on man who showed them how 770,000 accounts could be ripped off’ published 18 October 2011, in the Sydney Morning Herald, http://www.smh.com.au/it-pro/security-it/super-bad-first-state-set-police-on-man-who-showed-them-how--770000-accounts-could-be-ripped-off-20111018-1lvx1.html

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