A database of U.S. consumer information has been left unsecured online by the marketing firm Exactis. At 340 million records, this is the largest data breach of 2018.
The Largest Data Breach of 2018 by Some Distance
You will probably be unaware of the existence of the Palm Coast, FL-based data broker Exactis, but chances are the firm has heard of you. The firm holds 3.5 billion consumer, business and digital records while its email database contains 500 million consumer emails and 16 million business emails.
One database maintained by the firm contains around 340 million records, including 230 million consumer records and 110 million records of businesses. That database was recently discovered to have been left exposed on the Internet. The database could be accessed without any authentication. Anyone who knew where to look would have been able to access the database. At least one person did.
Security researcher Vinny Troia who runs NightLion Security, a New York consultancy firm, was searching online for instances of Elasticsearch databases. Troia was curious about the security of the databases as they are designed to be easily queried over the Internet. Troia searched for the databases using the search engine Shodan. Shodan is a search engine that allows people to find specific types of computers that are connected to the Internet.
Troia discovered more than 7,000 Elasticsearch databases that were visible on publicly accessible servers with U.S. IP addresses and set about determining which, if any, had data exposed on the Internet. He wrote a script that queried those databases and searched for keywords that would indicate they contained sensitive information – fields such as date of birth.
2 Terabytes of Data Exposed
One database stood out due to the amount of data it contained – around 2 terabytes of data. The database was not protected by a firewall and could be accessed without authentication. The database was discovered to contain huge numbers of detailed records about consumers. Troia noted, “It seems like this is a database with pretty much every U.S. citizen in it… it’s one of the most comprehensive collections I’ve ever seen.”
He discovered the records contained up to 150 data fields, with highly detailed information on consumers including names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and descriptions of the person, including information such as the estimated value of their home, hobbies, mortgage provider, ethnic group, whether the individual owns any stock, their religion, if they have made political donations, number of children, people in the household, whether they are smokers, if they own any pets…the list goes on and on.
While the database did not contain Social Security numbers or financial information, the data could be used by scammers in spear phishing campaigns, telephone scams and social engineering attacks. Around half the records contained email addresses, making it particularly valuable to spammers.
Troia said he is certainly not the only person who has searched for Elasticsearch databases, and the database was easy to find using Shodan: A popular search engine with white hat and black hat hackers. It is unknown whether anyone else found the database, but Troia explains that it would not be hard for anyone to find it. He could not be sure how long the database had been exposed online, but said it was at least 2 months.
After identifying an IP address which he believed belonged to the owner, Troia contacted two hosting companies, one of which notified Exactis. Troia also alerted the FBI. Exactis made contact with Troia and the database has now been secured and is no longer accessible.
At 340 million records, this the largest data breach of 2018 and one of the largest breaches ever discovered. The breach is more than twice the size of the Experian data breach of last year, although not on the scale of the Yahoo data breach that contained around 3 billion records. However, the types of information exposed potentially make the breach far more serious than Yahoo’s.
A database containing such detailed information on consumers should not have been left exposed. Safeguards should have been in place to alert the company that security protections had either been turned off or had not been implemented.
This security breach certainly stands out in terms of scale, but it is sadly only one of many that have been identified in recent months involving databases left freely accessible over the Internet.