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Education institutions have been victims of two separate data breaches and hacker attacks that have exposed millions of student data to the prying eyes in the wild.

For one of the exposure, more than 62 US colleges have been breached by a hacker that has exploited a vulnerability in an enterprise resource planning (ERP) web app; the U.S. Education Department confirmed this week.

Ellucian Banner Web Tailor, a module of the Ellucian Banner ERP, which allows universities to customize and design their hope-page websites and online applications, has had a vulnerability that was exploited by a hacker who made fake user profiles that are “almost immediately for criminal activity.”

Banner Web Tailor is a web tool, made for higher education institutions, that provides registration, curriculum management, advising, administration, and reporting functionality. Students can access and change their registration, graduation, and financial aid information. It is also used by professors and teachers to input grades which the students can then view online. It is used by hundreds of institutions, many of which have opted to use the Single Sign-on Manager to participate in CAS- and SAML-based single sign-on services.

Joshua Mulliken, a cybersecurity researcher discovered a vulnerability in the authentication mechanism used by the two modules earlier this year. This vulnerability allowed a hacker to hijack students’ web-sessions and take over their accounts. Ellucian fixed the vulnerability in May, and public disclosure was published, by both the researcher and NIST.

“An improper authentication vulnerability (CWE-287) was identified in Banner Web Tailor and Banner Enterprise Identity Services. This vulnerability is produced when SSO Manager is used as the authentication mechanism for Web Tailor, where this could lead to information disclosure and loss of data integrity for the impacted user(s). The vendor has verified the vulnerability and produced a patch that is now available. For more information, see the postings on Ellucian Communities,” reads the public disclosure of the vulnerability.

According to the announcement made by the US Education Department, hackers have already started exploiting the said vulnerability. “The Department has identified 62 colleges or universities that have been affected by the exploitation of this vulnerability,” officials said.

We have also recently received information that indicates criminal elements have been actively scanning the internet looking for institutions to victimize through this vulnerability and developing lists of institutions for targeting with this exploitation.”

The attackers, as said by the officials for the Education Department, “leverage scripts in the admissions or enrollment section of the affected Banner system to create multiple student accounts.” One victim reported that the attackers created thousands of fake accounts over days, with around 600 accounts created within 24 hours.

K12.com exposes users’ data

Meanwhile, a recent data breach involving K12.com has compromised more than seven million students’ data who use one of the company’s programs, leaving the data accessible to anyone online.

In June 25, 2019, Comparitech and security researcher Bob Diachenko uncovered the exposure when they found an unprotected MongoDB out in the open as they scan for unsecured databases.

The exposure affected K12.com’s A+nyWhere Learning System (A+LS), which is used by more than 1,100 school districts. The database has 6,988,504 records containing students’ data. The information held within each file included:

  • Primary personal email address
  • Full name
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Birthdate
  • School name
  • Authentication keys for accessing ALS accounts and presentations
  • Other internal data

“In this instance, an old version of MongoDB (2.6.4) was being utilized. This version of the database hasn’t been supported since October 2016. What’s more, the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) was enabled but not secured. As a result, the database was indexed by both the Shodan and BinaryEdge search engines. This means the records contained in the database were visible to the public,” said the researchers.

The researchers were able to reach out to K12.com, and a representative from the company said: “K12 takes data security very seriously. Whenever we are advised of a potential security issue, we investigate the problem immediately and take the appropriate actions to remedy the situation.”

While the danger that comes from the exposed data was not as huge as the first data breach involving the world’s educational system, the researchers said that it carries with it some implications.

“While the leak of this information isn’t as bad as, for example, the exposure of financial data or Social Security numbers, it does have its implications. These pieces of information can be used to target individual students in spear phishing and account takeover fraud. Having their school name made public could potentially put students at risk of physical harm,” they said.