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.

If you work within the security industry, compliance is seen almost as a dirty word. You have likely run into situations like that which @Nemesis09 describes below. Here, we see it’s all too common for organizations to treat testing compliance as a checkbox exercise and to thereby view compliance in a way that goes against its entire purpose.

There are challenges when it comes to compliance, for sure. Organizations need to figure out whether to shape their efforts to the letter of an existing law or to base their activities in the spirit of a “law” that best suits their security needs—even if that law doesn’t exists. There’s also the assumption that a company can acquire ‘good enough’ security by implementing a checkbox exercise, never mind the confusion explained by @Nemesis09.

Zoë Rose is a cyber security analyst at BH Consulting
Zoë Rose is a highly regarded hands-on cyber security specialist, who helps her clients better identify and manage their vulnerabilities, and embed effective cyber resilience across their organisation.

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However, there is truth behind why security compliance continues forward. It’s a bloody good way to focus efforts in the complex world of security. Compliance requirements are also using terms that senior leadership understand with risk-based validation of which cyber security teams can make use.

Security is ever-changing. One day, you have everything patched and ready. The next, a major security vulnerability is publicized, and you rush to implement the appropriate updates. It’s only then that you realise that those fixes break something else in your environment.

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Containers Challenge Compliance

Knowing where to begin your compliance efforts and where to focus investment in order to mature your compliance program is stressful and hard to do. Now, add to that the speed and complexity of container-isation and three compliance challenges come to mind:

  1. Short life spans – Containers tend to not last too long. They spin up and down over days, hours, even minutes. (By comparison, traditional IT assets like servers and laptops usually remain live for months or years.) Such dynamism makes container visibility constantly evolving and hard to pinpoint. The environment might be in flux, but organizations need to make sure that it always aligns with its compliance requirements regardless of what’s live at the moment.
  2. Testing records – The last thing organizations want to do is walk into an audit without any evidence of the testing they’ve implemented on their container environments. These tests provide crucial evidence into the controls that organizations have incorporated into their container compliance strategies. With documented tests, organizations can help their audits to run more smoothly without needing to try to remember what they did weeks or months ago.
  3. Integrity of containers– Consider the speed of a container’s lifecycle, as discussed above. You need to carefully monitor your containers and practice highly restricted deployment. Otherwise, you won’t be able to tell if an unauthorized or unexpected action occurred in your environment. Such unanticipated occurrences could be warning signs of a security incident.

Building a Container Security Program

One of the most popular certifications I deal with is ISO/IEC 27001, in which security is broken down into areas within the Information Security Management System. This logical separation allows for different areas of the business to address their security requirements while maintaining a holistic lens.

Let’s look at the first challenge identified above: short container life spans. Organizations can address this obstacle by building their environments in a standardized way: hardening it with appropriate measures and continuously validating it through build-time and (importantly) run-time. This means having systems in place to actively monitor actions that these containers make, interactions between systems and running services along with alerts that are in place for unexpected transactions.

Now for the second challenge above. In order to have resilient containers in production, an organisation has to have a proper validation/testing phase done prior to launch. In almost every program I have been a part of, when rolling out new features or services, there is always a guide on “Go/No Go” requirements. This includes things like which tests can fail gracefully, which types of errors are allowed and which tests are considered a “no go” because they can cause an incident or the transaction cannot be completed. In a container-ised environment, such requirements could take the form of bandwidth or latency requirements within your network. These elements, among others, could shape the conditions for when and to what extent your organization is capable of running a test.

In addressing the third challenge, the integrity of containers, we face a major compliance issue. Your organization therefore needs to ask itself the following questions?

  • Have we ever conducted a stress test of our containers’ integrity before?
  • Has our environment ever had a table-top exercise done with the scenario of a container gone rouge?
  • Has a red team exercise ever been launched with the sole purpose of distrusting or attacking the integrity of said containers?

Understand the Value of Compliance

In this article, the author discusses the best practices and known risks associated with Docker. It covers  the expected foundations that you must align with in order to reduce the likelihood of a configuration  causing an incident within your containerized infrastructure.

No environment is perfect, and no solution is 100% secure. That being said, the value of compliance when it comes to container-isation security programs is to validate that these processes so that they can help to reduce the likelihood of an incident, quickly identify the occurrence of events and minimize the potential impact to the overall environment.

Whilst compliance is often seen as a dirty word, it can be leveraged to enhance to overall program through a holistic lens, becoming something richer and attractive to all parties.

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. 

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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.