Sony, Congress, The Media and Me
As a researcher and educator, I regularly follow many newsletters, blogs and newsfeeds on a near daily basis. Some items I bookmark for my classes and research, but most I simply read, note, and discard. I read many dozen such items per day -- sometimes as many as 100 when there is a lot happening and I have a backlog.
After news of the Sony incident broke on April 20th, I saw items about how some people knew about vulnerabilities in parts of the Sony network, and servers running old versions of the Apache webservers. Those postings had material similar to what was published in Wired on April 28th. To the best of my memory, at least one of those postings mentioned that some of these vulnerabilities were exposed to Sony in a mailing list or blog prior to the compromise. It may be that the reference was to the PSN webserver vulnerabilities, it may have been about the earlier flaw with the PS3 connecting to the PSN, or it may have been some other vulnerabilities...but I am pretty certain it was about the webservers. There was no discussion about how the breach occurred or whether the old software played a part in those breaches.
After reading these stories, I moved on to other issues. I was not a customer of Sony or the Playstation Network (PSN), and they have never had a relationship with our research group, so I had no reason to pay close attention to the story. Furthermore, we were approaching the end of the semester, I was teaching a graduate class and also preparing for two trips to workshops. Thus, I had several other things to occupy my time and attention, and this story was definitely not one of them.
On May 1st, in my capacity as chair of USACM, I received an invitation to appear at a House subcommittee meeting on the morning of May 4 on the issue of data breaches and privacy. This is a topic that has been one of USACM's main thrust areas, and is in my main areas of interest, so even though it was extremely short notice, I said yes. I spent the next 48 hours frantically trying to rearrange my teaching and administrative schedule at the university while also producing a formal written testimony to deliver to Congressional offices by a Tuesday noon deadline. This occurred, but with very little sleep over that two day period. Tuesday afternoon I had to drive to Indianapolis to fly to Washington for the Wednesday morning hearing.
Wednesday morning at 9:30am. the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade of the House Energy and Commerce Committee held its hearing on “The Threat Of Data Theft To American Consumers.” I was the 4th witness in the panel (our written statements are available online). Three days of little sleep and too much coffee, plus the TV lights, combined to give me quite a headache, but that may not be evident if you watch the C-SPAN recording of the hearing.
In my written testimony I indicated that "...some news reports indicate that Sony was running software that was badly out of date, and had been warned about that risk." During questioning, I stated that I had read this on security lists that I normally read.
The fun begins
My comment that I had seen accounts about the server software being out of date and no firewalls was reported accurately by a few media outlets. However, a few others widely misquoted as me stating, authoritatively, that Sony was running outdated, unpatched software and implied that this was somehow the cause of the breach. Other news sources, blogs, and aggregators then picked up this version of the story and repeated it as their own, often with some other embellishment.
In only a few cases did a responsible journalist contact me to fact-check the story and determine what I had actually said, and what I actually knew.
I tried to correct one or two of the incorrect reports, but most occurred in places where there was no contact address for corrections, and they soon were spreading faster than I could possibly respond. I gave up.
Soon after the stories started circulating, I received email from Eugene Alvarado (he has given me permission to name him), who indicated that in early February he reported to Sony that there was widespread hacking of the network going on that was interfering with use of the network. He never got a response. So, at least one other person observed problems and reported them to Sony in advance of the breach in April. If the problem was significant, there may well have been others.
More recently, at least one "commentator" who "thinks" he is "clever" because he can put quotes around words like "security expert" to imply something meaningful about my expertise has posted a critique pointing out that some of Sony's servers were, in fact, up-to-date. However, at least one follow-up by someone else observes that other Sony servers (with interesting names such as "Login" and "Auth") were running software dated 2008. Thus, it may well be the case that some of the systems were current and some not. As we well know, it only takes one system out of rev or with a missing patch to serve as an entry point to a whole network.
To this day, I have never heard from nor spoken with anyone at Sony. I have never bothered to probe or investigate their systems, because frankly, I don't care. Those issues are for others to determine and settle. What I think were the bigger issues to the story at the hearing were about having standard breach notifications and the 24 USACM privacy principles that were in my testimony. There are hundreds of other breaches occurring every year in the U.S. resulting in fraud, identity theft, and other crimes. Those are smaller than this incident with the PSN, but the victims are no less damaged. We need for the FTC and law enforcement to have more resources to help fight these problems, and we could definitely use some appropriate Federal legislation on minimum privacy protections and breach notifications. Read the 4 written testimonies from the hearing to get a sense of what is involved.
As to the spurious story, I tried to be clear in my testimony (written and oral) that I was simply repeating what I had read in some online newsgroups. I am really quite appalled at the number of places that have twisted that into a claim that Sony was somehow, definitely, running substandard software or systems. It is possible they were, but it is also possible they were running very well-maintained systems that fell prey to a clever attacker. That has happened to other high profile victims.
I certainly bear the good folks at Sony no ill will, and I hope they resolve the situation with the Playstation Network soon.
In the meantime, perhaps this can serve as an abject lesson about dealing with the media and bloggers — some of them want a sensational story, whether the facts support it or not, and you had better not get in the way!
A recent article contains information indicating there was obvious evidence in Sony's logs of scanning activity starting March 3rd that should have been noticed.
Another recent article provides more information about the scanning activity preceding the breach, and suggests that it occurred from more than one source.
Here is a very nice timeline and summary of Sony security incidents that seem to keep on coming.