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Multicard Pty Ltd: Own motion investigation report

Overview

On 11 February 2013, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) opened an own motion investigation into Multicard Pty Ltd (Multicard). This was in response to information received from the Office of Transport Security (OTS) that personal information of a large number of Multicard applicants was publicly accessible online.

The Commissioner’s investigation focused on whether Multicard took reasonable steps to protect customer information from misuse and loss and from unauthorised access, modification or disclosure.[1]

After considering the facts of the case, submissions from Multicard and the relevant provisions of the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth)(Privacy Act), the Commissioner came to the view that Multicard had breached the Privacy Act by failing to take reasonable steps to secure the personal information it held. The Commissioner also found that Multicard had unlawfully disclosed personal information.

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Background

On 16 January 2013, the OAIC received information from OTS that personal information collected by Multicard for the purpose of assessing and granting applications for a Maritime Security Identity Card (MSIC; the MSIC information) had been made publicly accessible online (the data breach).

The following elements led to the data breach:

  • Multicard stored information about MSIC applicants in a folder labeled ‘uploads’ (uploads folder) on a publicly accessible web server.
  • Multicard stored the MSIC information in randomly named sub-folders in the uploads folder.
  • Multicard incorrectly configured the MSIC website to allow directory browsing, including of the uploads folder and its sub-folders.
  • Multicard did not configure its website to request search robots not to index the parts of the MSIC website that were not intended to be publicly accessible, including the uploads folder and its sub-folders.
  • Google indexed the uploads folder on and from 23 September 2012, making photos of MSIC applicants and other information discoverable via Google search between 23 September 2012 and 16 January 2013 (when Multicard responded to the breach).

The data breach resulted in the following personal information about MSIC applicants being made publicly accessible online:

  • 8,865 first and last names
  • 8,791 dates of birth
  • 7,342 addresses
  • 8,147 AusCheck ID numbers
  • 5,542 partial credit card numbers and expiry dates
  • 9,104 MSIC reference numbers
  • 28,826 photographs.

The MSIC information was accessed and downloaded in its entirety by at least one unidentified unauthorised third party.

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Relevant provisions of the Privacy Act

From 21 December 2001 to 11 March 2014, organisations covered by the Privacy Act were required to comply with the ten National Privacy Principles (NPPs), contained in Schedule 3 of the Act.[2] The NPPs applied to the handling of ‘personal information’, which the Privacy Act defined as:

information or an opinion (including information or an opinion forming part of a database), whether true or not, and whether recorded in a material form or not, about an individual whose identity is apparent, or can reasonably be ascertained, from the information or opinion.

The Privacy Act applies to all private sector organisations with an annual turnover of more than $3 million and some small businesses. Relevantly, a business with an annual turnover of less than $3 million that trades in personal information will be covered by the Privacy Act. Multicard is subject to the Privacy Act and, at the time of the data breach, was subject to the NPPs.

NPP 4 (Data security) and NPP 2 (Use and disclosure) are the Privacy Act provisions relevant to this incident. In particular:

  • NPP 4.1 required organisations to take reasonable steps to protect the personal information they hold from misuse and loss and from unauthorised access, modification or disclosure, and
  • NPP 2.1 provided that an organisation may only use or disclose personal information for the primary purpose of collection, unless an exception applies.

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Findings

Security of personal information (NPP 4.1)

In assessing whether Multicard took reasonable steps to comply with NPP 4.1, the Commissioner considered information from Multicard about the security safeguards in place relating to the MSIC information contained in the uploads folder, and what steps would have been reasonable in the circumstances to protect the personal information held. The Commissioner also had regard to the guidance set out in the OAIC’s Guide to information security.[3]

Multicard stated that prior to the data breach, it had taken the following measures to protect the breached data:

  • restricted access to the MSIC website (which included the uploads folder) to authorised and authenticated users
  • obscured file names with random data, to ensure they were not guessable, and
  • implemented Secure Socket Layer (SSL) security.

Restricted access to the MSIC website

Multicard stated that access to the MSIC website was restricted to authenticated users. However, the Commissioner found that this was not the case. Access to the uploads folder was not restricted to authorised users; Multicard allowed access to the uploads folder without requiring a password, username or other authenticator to establish the identity of the user. As a result, the MSIC information was able to be accessed by unauthorised third parties, including search robots such as GoogleBot.[4]

The Commissioner noted that restricting access to non-public content is a basic security step to protect information hosted on web servers. Restricting access to authorised and authenticated users of the uploads folder would have prevented access to the MSIC information by unauthorised third parties, including search robots.

File names and directory browsing

Multicard’s security steps included storing the MSIC information in randomly named sub-folders within the uploads folder. Multicard stated that the intention was that an unauthorised third party would not be able to guess the sub-folder names, and so would not be able to locate the MSIC information.

Multicard indicated that prior to the data breach, directory browsing was inadvertently enabled on its web servers. Enabling directory browsing caused the web server to automatically generate an index page listing all files in the uploads folder. This negated any need for unauthorised third parties to guess sub-folder names in order to discover the MSIC information, and thus eliminated any security value of implementing ‘non-guessable’ sub-folder names. In the absence of other security measures such as access restrictions (see above), this allowed search robots to access and index the uploads folder. The indexing of the uploads folder by Google facilitated discoverability of the MSIC information.

The Commissioner noted that disabling directory browsing is a standard security step available when configuring web servers, and a basic and fundamental security step when hosting content not intended for public access.

Secure Socket Layer (SSL)

Multicard advised that prior to the breach, it had secured its website using SSL, and that access [to the MSIC website] was unable to occur without SSL.[5]

However, during the course of the investigation, the Commissioner found that access to the uploads folder did not require authentication, and that SSL was not implemented on that part of the MSIC website.

The Commissioner noted that using cryptographic protocols such as SSL may in some circumstances be a reasonable step to secure information while it is being transmitted over the internet. However, the end point of the transmission must also be secure. This is because securely transmitting information to an insecure location will not produce a reasonable security outcome.

Appropriate instructions to search robots

The Commissioner found the indexing of the upload folder by Google indicated that Multicard did not configure its website to request search robots such as GoogleBot (via the robots.txt file) not to index, archive or cache the uploads folder.[6]

Configuring websites to provide appropriate instructions to search robots is a basic element of website security. Had Multicard configured its website appropriately it would have prevented the indexing of the uploads folder by GoogleBot. This would have significantly limited the discoverability of the uploads folder, and may have prevented access by unauthorised third parties.

NPP 4.1 conclusion — whether reasonable steps were taken to secure the personal information

The Commissioner found that Multicard failed to implement a number of basic website security measures which would have been reasonable in the circumstances to protect the personal information contained in the upload folder, including:

  • restricting access to the uploads folder to authorised and authenticated users
  • disabling directory browsing, and
  • properly configuring its website to request search robots not to index the uploads folder.

Therefore, the Commissioner found that Multicard contravened NPP 4.1 by failing to take reasonable security steps to protect the personal information it held from misuse and loss and from unauthorised access, modification or disclosure.

Disclosure of personal information (NPP 2.1)

As part of the investigation, the Commissioner considered whether there had been a breach of NPP 2.1 in relation to the publication of the MSIC information online by Multicard. NPP 2.1 regulates the use and disclosure of personal information and states that organisations may only use or disclose personal information for the primary purpose of collection, unless an exception applies.

In general terms, an organisation ‘discloses’ personal information when it releases information, whether purposely or accidentally, to others outside the organisation.

The Commissioner found that:

  • Multicard made the uploads folder publicly accessible online, and
  • the personal information contained in the uploads folder was accessed and acquired by unauthorised third parties.

Accordingly, the Commissioner found that Multicard had ‘disclosed’ the MSIC information within the meaning of NPP 2.

The primary purpose for the collection of the MSIC information was to enable Multicard to process applications for and issue MSICs. Multicard advised that the MSIC information was made accessible as the result of a ‘configuration error’. The Commissioner found that the purpose for that disclosure was not related to the primary purpose of the collection of the information, or a permissible secondary purpose.

Accordingly, the Commissioner found that the online public accessibility of the MSIC information was a disclosure in breach of NPP 2.1.

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Rectification

The Commissioner found that the steps that Multicard took to contain the breach were appropriate. After being notified of the breach, Multicard temporarily disabled the MSIC website, restricted access to the uploads folder, and requested Google to clear all relevant caches.

However, the Commissioner expressed concerns about the sufficiency of Multicard’s initial internal investigation into the breach (see below).

During the course of the investigation, Multicard took or committed to a number of steps to prevent further breaches. In June 2013, Multicard advised the Commissioner that it had taken the following steps:

  • Disabled directory browsing as a default on all its web servers.
  • Implemented access controls so that the MSIC information can only be accessed by authorised users.
  • Implemented an automatic alert notification system to inform the Multicard system administrator of unusual or anomalous traffic on the Multicard website.

Multicard also advised that it was in the process of separating its public website and the MSIC system onto separate servers, with the MSIC system available only to authenticated users, and subject to higher security.

In January 2014, Multicard advised that it had undertaken additional remediation steps, including:

  • conducting extensive website scanning, penetration testing and remediation over the course of September 2013 — January 2014
  • establishing regular website security scans
  • undertaking a major corporate restructure to increase levels of control, and
  • engaging an Australian-based privacy consultancy firm to guide Multicard in responding to the data breach, including mitigating any harm to affected individuals.

Multicard will also take the following steps:

  • Commission an external privacy/security auditor to conduct an independent audit of Multicard’s information holdings and security systems, including the steps already taken to rectify and improve security (independent auditor).
  • Put in place policies and frameworks to guide the regular conduct of audits of Multicard’s IT security framework.
  • Develop and implement a data breach response plan.
  • Increase privacy awareness amongst Multicard staff by providing privacy training, especially in relation to the reforms to the Privacy Act that came into force on 12 March 2014.

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Recommendations

While the Commissioner found that Multicard’s immediate response to contain the data breach was adequate, the Commissioner expressed concern that Multicard’s initial internal investigation into the breach, and the pace of that investigation, was insufficient. In particular, the Commissioner noted that Multicard’s communications with the OAIC suggested that Multicard did not fully understand its obligations under the Privacy Act. Further, Multicard did not demonstrate to the OAIC that its investigation addressed major questions regarding the breach, even after they were raised by the OAIC. Multicard took almost 12 months to provide clear information on the personal information that was compromised by the data breach, and the number of individuals affected. However, the Commissioner noted that, in December 2013, Multicard significantly changed its attitude to the investigation, taking a more positive and cooperative approach.

The Commissioner also expressed concern that Multicard did not appropriately investigate who and why third parties downloaded or otherwise accessed the uploads folder. This information would have informed Multicard’s risk assessment of the breach and facilitated the mitigation of that risk.

The Commissioner recommended that Multicard undertake this investigation as part of finalising its rectification steps, and that it provide the OAIC with a copy of its final investigation report.

The Commissioner has requested that the independent auditor engaged by Multicard certify Multicard has implemented the planned remediation steps, and provide to the OAIC the certification and a copy of the independent auditor’s report on Multicard’s information holdings and security systems by 30 June 2014. This will help ensure that Multicard is well placed to comply with its obligations under the Privacy Act, including the Australian Privacy Principles that came into force on 12 March 2014.

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Conclusion

The Commissioner found that Multicard:

  • failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the security of the personal information that it held, in contravention of NPP 4.1, and
  • disclosed personal information other than for a permitted purpose, in contravention of NPP 2.1.

Multicard acted appropriately to contain the data breach by immediately disabling its website and restricting access.

However, the Commissioner was concerned that Multicard’s initial internal investigation did not address major questions regarding the breach and did not respond to the OAIC’s requests in a timely fashion.

Since the data breach, Multicard has taken a number of steps to improve its information security and is in the process of addressing many of the OAIC’s recommendations.

Based on the information from Multicard about its remediation of the data breach, and Multicard’s ongoing implementation of recommendations made by the OAIC, the Commissioner decided to close the investigation.

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Acronyms and abbreviations

Commissioner — Australian Privacy Commissioner

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

OAIC — Office of the Australian Information Commissioner

Privacy Act — Privacy Act 1988 (Cth)

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Footnotes

[1] As required under National Privacy Principle (NPP) 4.1.

[2] On 12 March 2014, the NPPs were replaced by the Australian Privacy Principles.

[3] See Guide to securing personal information

[4] See Googlebot

[5] SSL is a cryptographic protocol that can be used to encrypt data transmitted over the internet, to protect the security of that information in transit. See, for example, What is TLS/SSL?

[6] ‘Robots.txt’ is a request-based string which search engines comply with voluntarily, and the Commissioner noted that most search engines comply with ‘robots.txt’, including Google, Bing, and Yahoo! Together, these comprise the vast majority of search engine market share in Australia (over 98% at the time of the data breach – see Michael David, Internetrix Research, Search Engine Optimization in 2013 [PDF], www.internetrix.com.au/assets/Research-Papers/SEO-FINAL-White-Paper-web.pdf, 1 May 2013).

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