On Wednesday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a story about how its staff discovered and reported a security vulnerability in a Missouri state education website that exposed the Social Security numbers of 100,000 elementary and secondary teachers. In a press conference this morning, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) said fixing the flaw could cost the state $50 million, and vowed his administration would seek to prosecute and investigate the “hackers” and anyone who aided the publication in its “attempt to embarrass the state and sell headlines for their news outlet.”
The Post-Dispatch says it discovered the vulnerability in a web application that allowed the public to search teacher certifications and credentials, and that more than 100,000 SSNs were available. The Missouri state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) reportedly removed the affected pages from its website Tuesday after being notified of the problem by the publication (before the story on the flaw was published).
The newspaper said it found that teachers’ Social Security numbers were contained in the HTML source code of the pages involved. In other words, the information was available to anyone with a web browser who happened to also examine the site’s public code using Developer Tools or simply right-clicking on the page and viewing the source code.
The Post-Dispatch reported that it wasn’t immediately clear how long the Social Security numbers and other sensitive information had been vulnerable on the DESE website, nor was it known if anyone had exploited the flaw.
But in a press conference Thursday morning, Gov. Parson said he would seek to prosecute and investigate the reporter and the region’s largest newspaper for “unlawfully” accessing teacher data.
“This administration is standing up against any and all perpetrators who attempt to steal personal information and harm Missourians,” Parson said. “It is unlawful to access encoded data and systems in order to examine other peoples’ personal information. We are coordinating state resources to respond and utilize all legal methods available. My administration has notified the Cole County prosecutor of this matter, the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s Digital Forensics Unit will also be conducting an investigation of all of those involved. This incident alone may cost Missouri taxpayers as much as $50 million.”
While threatening to prosecute the reporters to the fullest extent of the law, Parson sought to downplay the severity of the security weakness, saying the reporter only unmasked three Social Security numbers, and that “there was no option to decode Social Security numbers for all educators in the system all at once.”
“The state is committed to bringing to justice anyone who hacked our systems or anyone who aided them to do so,” Parson continued. “A hacker is someone who gains unauthorized access to information or content. This individual did not have permission to do what they did. They had no authorization to convert or decode, so this was clearly a hack.”
Parson said the person who reported the weakness was “acting against a state agency to compromise teachers’ personal information in an attempt to embarrass the state and sell headlines for their news outlet.”
“We will not let this crime against Missouri teachers go unpunished, and refuse to let them be a pawn in the news outlet’s political vendetta,” Parson said. “Not only are we going to hold this individual accountable, but we will also be holding accountable all those who aided this individual and the media corporation that employs them.”
In a statement shared with KrebsOnSecurity, an attorney for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said the reporter did the responsible thing by reporting his findings to the DESE so that the state could act to prevent disclosure and misuse.
“A hacker is someone who subverts computer security with malicious or criminal intent,” the attorney Joe Martineau said. “Here, there was no breach of any firewall or security and certainly no malicious intent. For DESE to deflect its failures by referring to this as ‘hacking’ is unfounded. Thankfully, these failures were discovered.”
Aaron Mackey is a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit digital rights group based in San Francisco. Mackey called the governor’s response “vindictive, retaliatory, and incredibly short-sighted.”
Mackey noted that Post-Dispatch did everything right, even holding its story until the state had fixed the vulnerability. He said the governor also is attacking the media — which serves a crucial role in helping give voice (and often anonymity) to security researchers who might otherwise remain silent under the threat of potential criminal prosecution for reporting their findings directly to the vulnerable organization.
“It’s dangerous and wrong to go after someone who behaved ethically and responsibly in the disclosure sense, but also in the journalistic sense,” he said. “The public had a right to know about their government’s own negligence in building secure systems and addressing well-known vulnerabilities.”
Mackey said Gov. Parson’s response to this incident also is unfortunate because it will almost certainly give pause to anyone who might otherwise find and report security vulnerabilities in state websites that unnecessarily expose sensitive information or access. Which also means such weaknesses are more likely to be eventually found and exploited by actual criminals.
“To characterize this as a hack is just wrong on the technical side, when it was the state agency’s own system pulling that SSN data and making it publicly available on their site,” Mackey said. “And then to react in this way where you don’t say ‘thank you’ but actually turn on the reporter and researchers and go after them…it’s just weird.”