Independent security researchers testing the security of the United Nations were able to compromise public-facing servers and a cloud-based development account for the U.N. and lift data on more than 100,000 staff and employees, according to a report released Monday.

Researchers affiliated with Sakura Samurai, a newly formed collective of independent security experts, exploited an exposed Github repository belonging to the International Labour Organization and the U.N.’s Environment Programme (UNEP) to obtain “multiple sets of database and application credentials” for UNEP applications, according to a blog post by one of the Sakura Samurai researchers, John Jackson, explaining the group’s work.

Specifically, the group was able to obtain access to database backups for private UNEP projects that exposed a wealth of information on staff and operations. That includes a document with more than 1,000 U.N. employee names, emails; more than 100,000 employee travel records including destination, length of stay and employee ID numbers; more than 1,000 U.N. employee records and so on.

The researchers stopped their search once they were able to obtain personally identifying information. However, they speculated that more data was likely accessible.

Looking for Vulnerabilities

The researchers were scanning the U.N.’s network as part of the organization’s Vulnerability Disclosure Program. That program, started in 2016, has resulted in a number of vulnerabilities being reported to the U.N., many of them common cross-site scripting (XSS) and SQL injection flaws in the U.N.’s main website, un.org.

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For their work, Sakura Samurai took a different approach, according to Jackson, in an interview with The Security Ledger. The group started by enumerating UN subdomains and scanning them for exposed assets and data. One of those, an ILO.org Apache web server, was misconfigured and exposing files linked to a Github account. By downloading that file, the researchers were able to recover the credentials for a UN survey management panel, part of a little used, but public facing survey feature on the UN site. While the survey tool didn’t expose a tremendous amount of data, the researchers continued scanning the site and eventually discovered a subdomain that exposed a file containing the credentials for a UN Github account containing 10 more private GitHub repositories encompassing databases and database credentials, backups and files containing personally identifying information.

Much more to be found

Jackson said that the breach is extensive, but that much more was likely exposed prior to his group’s discovery.

“Honestly, there’s way more to be found. We were looking for big fish to fry.” Among other things, a Sakura Samurai researcher discovered APIs for the Twilio cloud platform exposed – those also could have been abused to extract data and personally identifying information from UN systems, he said.

In an email response to The Security Ledger, Farhan Haq, a Deputy Spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General said that the U.N.’s “technical staff in Nairobi … acknowledged the threat and … took ‘immediate steps’ to remedy the problem.”

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“The flaw was remedied in less than a week, but whether or not someone accessed the database remains to be seen,” Haq said in the statement.

A disclosure notice from the U.N. on the matter is “still in the works,” Haq said. According to Jackson, data on EU residents was among the data exposed in the incident. Under the terms of the European Union’s Genderal Data Privacy Rule (GDPR), the U.N. has 72 hours to notify regulators about the incident.

Nation State Exposure?

Unfortunately, Jackson said that there is no way of knowing whether his group was the first to discover the exposed data. It is very possible, he said, that they were not.

“It’s likely that nation state threat actors already have this,” he said, noting that data like travel records could pose physical risks, while U.N. employee email and ID numbers could be useful in tracking and impersonating employees online and offline.

Another danger is that malicious actors with access to the source code of U.N. applications could plant back doors or otherwise manipulate the functioning of those applications to suit their needs. The recent compromise of software updates from the firm Solar Winds has been traced to attacks on hundreds of government agencies and private sector firms. That incident has been tied to hacking groups associated with the government of Russia.

Asked whether the U.N. had conducted an audit of the affected applications, Haq, the spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary General said that the agency was “still looking into the matter.”

A Spotty Record on Cybersecurity

This is not the first cybersecurity lapse at the U.N. In January, 2020 the website the New Humanitarian reported that the U.N. discovered but did not disclose a major hack into its IT systems in Europe in 2019 that involved the compromise of UN domains and the theft of administrator credentials.

Development and Operations (DevOps) teams are often pressured by executives and sales teams to get software products completed and out the door and into the market as quickly as possible so the products can generate income. Often, security is not the highest priority for DevOps, as adding security features may affect the performance of the software or add time to the deployment schedule.

The SolarWinds hack is a crucial reminder to DevOps teams to build security into software products, and to complete due diligence on the security protocols regarding the DevOps teams of vendors that make components used by software manufacturers, such as JetBrains.

JetBrains is a Czech-based company that developed a product called TeamCity, which Reuters reports is “used by tens of thousands of customers to construct other software.” According to other news reports, the FBI is investigating whether the Russians hacked into JetBrains’ TeamCity DevOps tool in order to infect SolarWinds’ Orion software [see related post].  If your DevOps team is using TeamCity, it may present another risk associated with the SolarWinds incident that has much broader impact on other software development.

Check with your DevOps team to see what kind of security due diligence they are completing on the vendors that are providing the component parts of the software they are developing, including JetBrains. If no due diligence is being done, this is a perfect time to start.

Data Center and Code

This podcast is the latest in a series of interviews we’re doing on “left-shifted security” that explores how information security is transforming to embrace agile development methodologies and DEVOPS. If you like this, check out some of the other podcasts in this series!


Information security is “shifting left”: moving closer to the development process and becoming part and parcel of agile “DEVOPS” organizations. But while building security into development may be a familiar idea, what does it mean to build compliance into development? 

Galen Emery is the Lead Compliance & Security Architect at Chef Software. 

To find out, we invited Galen Emery the Lead Compliance & Security Architect at Chef Software, in to the Security Ledger studios to talk about the job of blending both security and compliance into agile development processes. We also talk about Chef’s increasing investments in security testing and compliance and how the “shift left” is impacting other security investments including access control, auditing and more. 

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To start out, I asked Galen to tell us a bit about Chef and how the company’s technology has evolved from configuration management to security testing and compliance as well as areas like endpoint protection. 


As always,  you can check our full conversation in our latest Security Ledger podcast at Blubrry. You can also listen to it on iTunes and check us out on SoundCloudStitcherRadio Public and more. Also: if you enjoy this podcast, consider signing up to receive it in your email. Just point your web browser to securityledger.com/subscribe to get notified whenever a new podcast is posted. 

Binary Check Ad Blocker Security News

The pandemic isn’t the only thing shaking up development organizations. Application security is a top concern and security work is “shifting left” and becoming more intertwined with development. In this podcast, Security Ledger Editor in Chief Paul Roberts talks about it with Jonathan Hunt, Vice President of Security at the firm GitLab.


Even before the COVID pandemic set upon us, the information security industry was being transformed. Security was long a matter of hardening organizations to threats and attacks. The goal was “layered defenses” starting with firewalls and gateway security servers and access control lists to provide hardened network perimeter and intrusion detection and endpoint protection software to protect IT assets within the perimeter. 

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Security Shifting Left

Jonathan Hunt is the Vice President of Security at GitLab

These days, however,  security is “shifting left” – becoming part and parcel of the development process. “DEVSECOPS”  marries security processes like code analysis and vulnerability scanning to agile application development in a way that results in more secure products. 

That shift is giving rise to a whole new type of security firm, including the likes of GitLab, a web-based DevOps lifecycle tool and Git-repository manager that is steadily building its roster of security capabilities. What does it mean to be a security provider in the age of DEVSECOPS and left-shifted security?

Application Development and COVID

To answer these questions, we invited Jonathan Hunt, the Vice President of Security at GitLab into the Security Ledger studio to talk about it. In this conversation, Jonathan and I talk about what it means to shift security left and marry security processes like vulnerability scanning and fuzzing with development in a seamless way. 

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We also discuss how the COVID pandemic has shaken up development organizations – including GitLab itself – and how the changes wrought by COVID may remain long after the virus itself has been beaten back. 


As always,  you can check our full conversation in our latest Security Ledger podcast at Blubrry. You can also listen to it on iTunes and check us out on SoundCloudStitcherRadio Public and more. Also: if you enjoy this podcast, consider signing up to receive it in your email. Just point your web browser to securityledger.com/subscribe to get notified whenever a new podcast is posted.