Turns Out It Was Actually The Missouri Governor’s Office Who Was Responsible For The Security Vulnerability Exposing Teacher Data

from the will-you-look-at-that dept

The story of Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) leaking the Social Security Numbers of hundreds of thousands of current and former teachers and administrators could have been a relatively small story of yet another botched government technology implementation – there are plenty of those every year. But then Missouri Governor Mike Parson insisted that the reporter who reported on the flaw was a hacker and demanded he be prosecuted. After a months’ long investigation, prosecutors declined to press charges, but Parson doubled down and insisted that he would “protect state data and prevent unauthorized hacks.”

You had to figure another shoe was going to drop and here it is. As Brian Krebs notes, it has now come out that it was actually the Governor’s own IT team that was in charge of the website that leaked the data. That is, even though it was the DESE website, that was controlled by the Governor’s own IT team. This is from the now released Missouri Highway Patrol investigation document. As Krebs summarizes:

The Missouri Highway Patrol report includes an interview with Mallory McGowin, the chief communications officer for the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). McGowin told police the website weakness actually exposed 576,000 teacher Social Security numbers, and the data would have been publicly exposed for a decade.

McGowin also said the DESE’s website was developed and maintained by the Office of Administration’s Information Technology Services Division (ITSD) – which the governor’s office controls directly.

“I asked Mrs. McGowin if I was correct in saying the website was for DESE but it was maintained by ITSD, and she indicated that was correct, ”the Highway Patrol investigator wrote. “I asked her if the ITSD was within the Office of Administration, or if DESE had their on-information technology section, and she indicated it was within the Office of Administration. She stated in 2009, policy was changed to move all information technology services to the Office of Administration. ”

Now, it’s important to note that the massive, mind-bogglingly bad, security flaw that exposed all those SSNs in the source code of publicly available websites was coded long before Parson was the governor, but it’s still his IT team that was who was on the hook here. And perhaps that explains his nonsensical reaction to all of this?

For what it’s worth, the report also goes into greater detail about just how dumb this vulnerability was:

Ms. Keep and Mr. Durnow told me once on the screen with this specific data about any teacher listed in the DESE system, if a user of the webpage selected to view the Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) source code, they were allowed to see additional data available to the webpage, but not necessarily displayed to the typical end-user. This HTML source code included data about the selected teacher which was Base64 encoded. There was information about other teachers, who were within the same district as the selected teacher, on this same page; however, the data about these other teachers was encrypted.

Ms. Keep said the data which was encoded should have been encrypted. Ms. Keep telling me Mr. Durnow was reworking the web application to encrypt the data prior to putting the web application back online for the public. Ms. Keep told me the DESE application was about 10 years old, and the fact the data was only encoded and not encrypted had never been noticed before.

This explains why Parson kept insisting that it wasn’t simply “view source” that was the issue here, and that it was hacking because it was “decoded.” But Base64 decoding isn’t hacking. If it was, anyone figuring out what this says would be a “hacker.”

TWlrZSBQYXJzb24gaXMgYSB2ZXJ5IGJhZCBnb3Zlcm5vciB3aG8gYmVpZXZlcyB0aGF0IGhpcyBvd24gSVQgdGVhbSdzIHZlcnkgYmFkIGNvZGluZyBwcmFjdGljZXMgc2hvdWxkIG5vdCBiZSBibGFtZWQsIGFuZCBpbnN0ZWFkIHRoYXQgaGUgY2FuIGF0dGFjayBqb3VybmFsaXN0cyB3aG8gZXRoaWNhbGx5IGRpc2Nsb3NlZCB0aGUgdnVsbmVyYWJpbGl0eSBhcyAiaGFja2VycyIgcmF0aGVyIHRoYW4gdGFrZSBldmVuIHRoZSBzbGlnaHRlc3QgYml0IG9mIHJlc3BvbnNpYmlsaXR5Lg ==

That’s not hacking. That’s just looking at what’s there and knowing how to read it. Not understanding the difference between encoding and encrypting is the kind of thing that is maybe forgivable for a non-techie in a confused moment, but Parson has people around him who could surely explain it – the same people who clearly explained it to the Highway Patrol investigating. But instead, he still insists it was hacking and is still making journalist Jon Renaud’s life a living hell from all this nonsense.

The investigation also confirms exactly as we had been saying all along that Renaud and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did everything in the most ethical way possible. It found the vulnerability, checked to make sure it was real, confirmed it with an expert, then notified DESE about it, including the details of the vulnerability, and while Renaud noted that the newspaper was going to run a story about it, made it clear that it wanted to make sure the vulnerability was locked down before the story would run.

So, once again, Mike Parson looks incredibly ignorant, and completely unwilling to take responsibility. And the more he does so, the more this story continues to receive attention.

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Filed Under: dese, hacking, jon renaud, mike parson, missouri, vulnerability
Companies: st. louis post-dispatch

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