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A simple Website vulnerability could have allowed anyone to use a browser to look at the mobile-phone messaging records of a Verizon Wireless subscriber just by knowing a target's cell phone number.
The Website flaw, which was discovered on Aug. 7 and fixed by mid-September, enabled anyone to exploit an export data function on the Verizon Wireless site to download a spreadsheet with the message details for any subscriber whose mobile number was known, according to a statement posted to Pastebin by Cody Collier, the security researcher who found the flaw. While no message content was leaked, the technique could have been used to collect the data and time a message was sent and who was contacted.
"With no user interaction, all that was required was a subscriber's phone number," he wrote. "Upon altering [a] variable within the URL, [the browser] downloaded a CSV file containing all the message details for the requested number."
Collier could not immediately be contacted for this article, as both his Twitter handle and Website, prvsec.com, could not be contacted. However, on Oct. 23, Verizon Wireless confirmed the vulnerability existed.
"What I can share is that we take customer privacy seriously, and our teams addressed the issue as soon as we were made aware," Debi Lewis, a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless, said in an email response to eWEEK.
Finding security issues in Websites is a risky business. Legally, any exploitation of vulnerabilities on a Website to get unauthorized access to data can be prosecuted as a crime. In 2005, network specialist Eric McCarty found and disclosed vulnerabilities in the online application service for the University of Southern California.
The issue could have given access to sensitive details of approximately 275,000 applicants to the university. Federal prosecutors pursued charges against McCarty and in 2006 he pleaded guilty to a single felony conviction and was sentenced to six months under house arrest.
More recently, a federal court convicted hacker and Internet bad boy Andrew Auernheimer, also known as "Weev," to 41 months in prison for using a very similar technique, spoofing an iPad along with a series of ID numbers, to grab 114,000 email addresses. Many legal and security experts have taken issue with the case, criticizing the legal precedent as making security research illegal.
Collier notified Verizon Wireless of the issue in August and waited more than a month after he had confirmation that the vulnerability had been fixed before going public. Contacting Verizon about the security flaw was no mean feat, he stated.
"The process of reporting a vulnerability to Verizon Wireless is extremely impractical," Collier said in his statement. "A page dedicated to assist researchers in reporting vulnerabilities is nonexistent, and all security emails I attempted to [send] bounced back."
Collier finally resorted to using LinkedIn to find a suitable security contact at the company, he stated. Verizon Wireless now directs all researchers to use its email address set up to receive reports on the abuse of its network or Website, Verizon's Lewis said.
"Best way to report issues is to send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org," she said.