Security Experts:

Travel Agent Association Breach Highlights Supply Chain Threat

The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) today informed users of a breach that may have affected up to 43,000 customers.

In a statement, CEO Mark Tanzer explained that he "recently became aware of unauthorized access to the web server supporting abta.com by an external infiltrator exploiting a vulnerability." That would seem to rule out insider action -- the web server was hacked.

The incident apparently occurred on Feb. 27 on a web server "managed for ABTA through a third-party web developer and hosting company." This phrase is repeated three times throughout the statement as if trying to reassure customers that it was not ABTA's 'fault'. Legally, that doesn't work. ABTA is clearly the data controller in this instance, and the data controller retains responsibility regardless of any third-party data processor (that is, the web-hosting company). If any subsequent investigation finds lack of regulatory compliance contributing to this breach, it is ABTA that will be held liable.

This highlights a major problem for all businesses: how to adequately security audit the supply chain.

"As this breach highlights," comments Ross Brewer, VP and EMEA MD of LogRhythm, "companies need to be conscious of third parties they work with as they can end up being a chink in their armor that they aren't aware of. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for suppliers or partners to fall short in terms of security, jeopardizing the security of large organizations like ABTA."

Tony Pepper, co-founder and CEO of Egress, makes the same point. "It's one thing to be confident that you're ticking all the right boxes, but it's another to assume that other businesses are being just as thorough." It is, adds Dave Hartley, Associate Director at MWR InfoSecurity, "a powerful example of the dangers of divesting security responsibilities to third party developers and hosting providers." You can divest responsibility, but you cannot easily divest liability.

ABTA has reported the incident to the UK's data protection regulator, the Information Commissioners Officer (and the police). It will be some time before any compliance decision is made by the ICO.

In the meantime, ABTA is playing down the severity of the incident.

"The majority of the data," says the statement, "related to email addresses and passwords for any ABTA Member or customer of an ABTA Member that had registered on abta.com. These passwords were encrypted – which means to the human eye it will look like a jumble of characters -- and so there is a very low exposure risk of identity theft or online fraud."

The key phrase here is 'these passwords were encrypted'. But it doesn't specify whether they were encrypted or hashed, nor what hash algorithm was used, nor whether the hashes were salted. All of these details play into how easily the passwords can be decrypted -- which may simply be too easily.

"Encryption will hardly make a difference to the incident," warns Ilia Kolochenko, CEO of High-Tech Bridge. "Hashed passwords can be quite easily bruteforced, and taking into consideration modern computing capacities, including elastic cloud infrastructure, attackers will probably get the majority of passwords in plaintext without much effort."

The statement also says, "We are not aware of any information being shared beyond the infiltrator." This is another phrase designed to be reassuring but is ultimately meaningless unless the infiltrator is already known and apprehended (which of course is entirely possible). If this was a remote hack, then there is simply no way of knowing what the hacker may have done with the information. 

This is particularly relevant to a part of the stolen data. Potentially accessed data includes a "smaller volume of data uploaded via the website by ABTA Members using the 'self-service' facility on abta.com, where ABTA Members have uploaded documentation in support of their membership." We don't know what members may have included in the uploaded supporting documentation, but it is likely to include names, addresses, phone numbers and so on in free text. 

While ABTA says the passwords were encrypted, it does not say the documents were encrypted. This data is valuable to identity thieves, and victim members of ABTA will need to monitor their bank accounts and credit scores for years to come. Cyber criminals are well-known to be patient in their use of personal information for criminal purposes. As the ABTA statement says, victims "should remain vigilant regarding online and identity fraud: actively monitor your bank accounts and any social media and email accounts you may have."

In the meantime, victims should immediately change their ABTA password, and change any identical or even similar password used on any other account, to something strong and unique. Organizations, however, need urgently find some way to security audit their supply chain; a necessity that will only become more important as the EU's General Data Protection Regulation comes into force.

Roughly a year ago, Google decided to open source its Vendor Security Assessment Questionnaire (VSAQ) framework to help companies improve their security programs. While not an official product of the search giant, the interactive questionnaire application was developed to support security reviews by facilitating the collection of information and allowing users to display it in a template form.

Related: Don't Forget to Manage Supply Chain Risk

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Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.