On 6 August 2012, the Australian Privacy Commissioner (the Commissioner) opened an own motion investigation into AAPT Ltd (AAPT) and Melbourne IT Ltd (Melbourne IT) in response to media reports that a server holding AAPT customer information had been compromised by the hacker group Anonymous.
The Commissioner’s investigation focused on whether AAPT and Melbourne IT took reasonable steps to protect customer information from misuse and loss and from unauthorised access, modification or disclosure.
After considering the facts of the case, submissions from AAPT and Melbourne IT and the relevant provisions of the Privacy Act 1988, the Commissioner came to the view that AAPT had breached the Privacy Act by failing to take reasonable steps to secure the personal information it held. The Commissioner also found that the compromised servers contained some old customer information and that AAPT had failed to comply with its obligation to destroy or permanently de-identify information no longer in use.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (the ACMA) also carried out an investigation into the incident in relation to AAPT’s compliance with the Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code C628:2007 (the Code). The ACMA found that AAPT contravened clause 6.8.1 of the Code by failing to protect the privacy of small business customers whose personal information was stored in a server which was the subject of unauthorised access.
On 26 July 2012, the Commissioner received information which indicated that a server on which AAPT data was held was accessed by Anonymous between 17 and 19 July 2012, with unauthorised data transfers occurring from 20 July 2012 to 22 July 2012. Subsequently, AAPT data was published by Anonymous on the internet.
The AAPT data was held on a server managed by WebCentral Pty Ltd, a webhosting business unit of Melbourne IT. Melbourne IT identified the incident after becoming aware of the attack by Anonymous on other servers it operated. It notified AAPT of the incident on 25 July 2012 and on the same day AAPT disconnected from the Melbourne IT network and took immediate steps to ensure the data could not be further compromised.
The compromised server held a series of websites and databases that included personal information about AAPT business customers used to verify the identity of customers and provide a quoting and billing system for AAPT sales staff. The personal information included information collected for the purpose of obtaining credit reports of AAPT business customers and information used for the purpose of transferring telephone numbers from other telecommunications carriers.
Relevant provisions of the Privacy Act
Organisations covered by the Privacy Act must comply with ten National Privacy Principles (NPPs) contained in Schedule 3 of the Act. The NPPs apply to the handling of ‘personal information’ which the Privacy Act defines 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. Both AAPT and Melbourne IT are subject to the Privacy Act and the NPPs.
NPP 4 (Data security) and NPP 2 (Use and disclosure) were the Privacy Act provisions relevant to this incident. In particular:
- NPP 4.1 requires organisations to take reasonable steps to protect the personal information they hold from misuse and loss and from unauthorised access, modification or disclosure
- NPP 4.2 states that, if an organisation no longer needs personal information for any purpose under NPP 2, then the organisation must take reasonable steps to destroy or permanently de-identify it
- NPP 2.1 provides that an organisation may only use or disclose personal information for the primary purpose of collection, unless an exception applies.
Security of personal information (NPP 4.1)
In determining whether there had been a breach of NPP 4.1, the Commissioner considered which organisation ‘held’ the AAPT customer information and whether that organisation took reasonable steps to protect the information from unauthorised access, modification or disclosure.
Which organisation ‘held’ the personal information for the purposes of NPP 4.1
NPP 4.1 applies to personal information ‘held’ by an organisation. Information is held by an organisation where it has physical possession of the data or the right or power to deal with the information even if it does not physically possess or own the medium on which the information is stored.
The Commissioner took the view that AAPT held the information for the purposes of NPP 4.1, despite it being stored on Melbourne IT’s server. This meant that AAPT had an obligation to comply with NPP 4.1 in relation to the information.
Whether reasonable steps were taken to secure the personal information
The Commissioner then considered whether AAPT had reasonable steps in place to protect the security of the information.
A contract between AAPT and WebCentral signed in 2005 stated that the server was to be fully managed and maintained on the customer’s behalf, ‘with the exception of custom application content and data’, which was to be the responsibility of AAPT.
Data on the server managed by WebCentral was accessed by Anonymous via the ‘Cold Fusion’ application installed on the server. Anonymous was able to exploit a vulnerability in the application to gain access to the data. Melbourne IT described Cold Fusion as a ‘customer managed application.’ In Melbourne IT’s view, it was AAPT’s responsibility to update applications when newer versions became available. Melbourne IT took responsibility for keeping existing applications patched. At the time of the incident, security patches were up to date on the Cold Fusion application, but several newer versions of Cold Fusion were available, the most recent of which had security features that may have prevented the attack by Anonymous.
The 2005 contract between AAPT and WebCentral contained some provisions requiring WebCentral to have security arrangements in place for data held on the server. However, the contract did not require that:
- the data on the server be appropriately assessed and classified to determine whether it included personal information and the sensitivity of that information
- existing or emerging security risks in connection with the Cold Fusion application be identified and addressed or
- vulnerability scanning and effective lifecycle management of the Cold Fusion application occur.
Moreover, it was not clear that AAPT was aware of what personal information was contained on the server; what Cold Fusion applications were installed and which part of the server these applications related to; and who was responsible for the maintenance and lifecycle management of the Cold Fusion application that was exploited by Anonymous.
In considering these factors, the Commissioner came to the view that AAPT failed to take its own steps to appropriately manage and protect the information and did not have adequate contractual measures in place to protect the personal information held on the compromised server. AAPT continued to use a seven year old version of Cold Fusion which was generally known to have vulnerabilities when newer versions were available.
Therefore, the Commissioner found that, in this instance, AAPT did not take reasonable steps to protect the personal information it held from misuse and loss and from unauthorised access, modification or disclosure, in contravention of NPP 4.1.
To address the issues identified above, the OAIC recommended that AAPT:
- conduct regular reviews of all IT applications held internally or with external providers to ensure AAPT is aware of applications held
- take steps to ensure all IT applications held internally or externally which hold or use personal information are subject to vulnerability assessment and testing, regular vulnerability scanning and have effective lifecycle management
- clearly allocate responsibility for lifecycle management of applications
- conduct regular audits of AAPT’s IT security framework to ensure that security measures are working effectively, and that policies and procedures relating to data security are being complied with
- undertake further training for IT staff and relevant business units to increase their understanding of their data security obligations (including lifecycle management of IT applications), data security risks and threats, and the importance of following AAPT’s policies and procedures that relate to data security
- undertake steps to ensure appropriate classification of data it holds either internally or externally, including whether it includes personal information and the sensitivity of that information
- review the terms of the contracts it has with IT suppliers that hold or manage AAPT data to ensure clarity around which party has responsibility for identifying and addressing data security issues (such as vulnerabilities associated with old versions of IT applications).
AAPT has implemented these recommendations by establishing an Information Management and Security Framework to ensure appropriate classification of data and to regularise risk assessments of information management and security practices. The Framework incorporates policies on: information life cycle management; physical and environmental security; internal security governance (such as IT security, email, network and systems security, third party provider security and change management); and information security incident management.
AAPT has also carried out an audit of contractors to assess the type of information held and any vulnerabilities relating to data security. The audit also assessed the sensitivity of data held by AAPT and measures in place to ensure secure storage or deletion where appropriate. AAPT has also introduced a program to identify and rectify software vulnerabilities and to ensure regular testing of network and firewall security.
To ensure staff understand their data security obligations, AAPT has established an Information Security Awareness and Training Policy and has rolled out an online Privacy and Information Security Policies training program to all AAPT staff.
Retention of personal information (NPP 4.2)
During the investigation, AAPT confirmed that not all of the compromised data was in use at the time of the hacking incident. NPP 4.2 requires organisations to take reasonable steps to destroy or permanently de-identify personal information that is not being used or disclosed for any purpose under NPP 2. To comply with this obligation, an organisation must develop systems or procedures to identify information the organisation no longer needs and a process for how the destruction or de-identification of the information will occur.
AAPT’s Information Management Policy, Information Management Guidelines and Data Storage for Archive and Back up Standard outline the data retention system operating at AAPT and also refer to specific retention schedules. It appears that those policies were available on AAPT’s intranet, though there seems to have been low awareness of data retention requirements amongst staff or business units. Data retention policies were not being followed at the time of the incident by the staff involved with the data held on Melbourne IT’s servers and AAPT only became aware of this situation when the hacking incident occurred.
In considering these facts, the Commissioner came to the view that AAPT did not take reasonable steps to destroy or permanently de-identify the personal information that was no longer in use (in contravention of NPP 4.2).
To address the issues identified above, the OAIC recommended that AAPT:
- ensure that there is regular training for staff in relation to data security policies, including data retention and destruction – specifically, any staff who are responsible for information creation, distribution, retention and destruction should be provided with appropriate guidance and training to meet their obligations for each stage of the information lifecycle.
As noted above, AAPT has addressed this recommendation by establishing an Information Security Awareness and Training Policy and rolling out an online Privacy and Information Security Policies training program to all AAPT staff. The training includes guidance in data destruction procedures and the process for retaining and destroying information.
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, by Anonymous, of AAPT customer information online. 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 to others outside the organisation.
Given that AAPT customer data was made public through the malicious actions of Anonymous, the Commissioner came to the view that the publication of the data by Anonymous was not a ‘disclosure’ by AAPT. Therefore, AAPT did not breach NPP 2.1 in these circumstances.
AAPT acted appropriately in response to the incident by taking the server offline immediately and working closely with Melbourne IT to investigate and rectify the incident. A configuration change to the server by Melbourne IT on 24 July 2012 closed the vulnerability exploited by Anonymous.
Since the incident, AAPT has undertaken an appropriate review of the incident and data involved, and has taken appropriate steps to notify potentially affected customers. All AAPT data storage arrangements have been reviewed by AAPT, either as part of the IT response to the incident or as part of a broader internal audit and review of data storage arrangements.
Following the Commissioner’s finding that AAPT had breached NPP 4.1 and 4.2 in relation to the data held on the compromised server, AAPT has addressed the OAIC’s recommendations.
Based on the information provided by AAPT about its review and remediation of the matter and AAPT’s implementation of recommendations made by the OAIC, the Commissioner decided to close the investigation. The Commissioner also closed the investigation into Melbourne IT, finding the organisation had not breached the NPPs in relation to AAPT customer data.
Should an individual complaint about the matter be received, the OAIC will consider it on its merits and information gathered as part of this investigation will be taken into account in any subsequent complaint process.
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)
 More information about steps and strategies to protect personal information and circumstances that may impact on what steps are reasonable can be found in the OAIC’s Guide to securing personal information.