Digital transformation is revolutionizing how healthcare is delivered. But a simmering dispute between a UK security researcher and a domestic healthcare non-profit suggests that the road ahead may be bumpy for both organizations embracing new software and services and for those who dare to ask questions about how that software works.

Rob Dyke (@robdykedotcom) is an independent security researcher. (Image courtesy of Twitter.)

A case in point: UK-based engineer Rob Dyke has spent months caught in an expensive legal tussle with the Apperta Foundation, a UK-based clinician-led non-profit that promotes open systems and standards for digital health and social care. The dispute stems from a confidential report Dyke made to the Foundation in February after discovering that two of its public Github repositories exposed a wide range of sensitive data, including application source code, user names, passwords and API keys.

The application in question was dubbed “Apperta Portal” and was publicly accessible for two years, Dyke told Security Ledger. Dyke informed the Foundation in his initial notification that he would hold on to the data he discovered for 90 days before deleting it, as a courtesy. Dyke insists he followed Apperta’s own information security policy, with which he was familiar as a result of earlier work he had done with the organization.

Open Source vs. An Open Sorcerer

Dyke (@robdykedotcom) is a self-described “open sorcerer” with expertise in the healthcare sector. In fact, he previously worked on Apperta-funded development projects to benefit the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and had a cordial relationship with the organization. Initially, the Foundation thanked Dyke for disclosing the vulnerability and removed the exposed public source code repositories from GitHub.

Researchers Test UN’s Cybersecurity, Find Data on 100k

That honeymoon was short lived. On March 8, 2021, Dyke received a letter from a law firm representing Apperta Foundation that warned that he “may have committed a criminal offense under the Computer Misuse Act 1990,” a thirty-year-old U.K. computer crime law.  “We understand (you) unlawfully hacked into and penetrated our client’s systems and databases and extracted, downloaded (and retain) its confidential business and financial data. You then made threats to our client…We are writing to advise you that you may have committed a criminal offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 and the Investigatory Powers Act 2016,” the letter read, in part. Around the same time, he was contacted by a Northumbria Police cyber investigator inquiring about a report of “Computer Misuse” from Apperta.

A Hard Pass By Law Enforcement

The legal maneuvers by Apperta prompted Dyke to go public with the dispute – though he initially declined to name the organization pursuing him – and to hire his own lawyers and to set up a GoFundMe to help offset his legal fees. In an interview with The Security Ledger, Dyke said Apperta’s aggressive actions left him little choice. “(The letter) had the word ‘unlawful’ in there, and I wasn’t about to sign anything that had said I’d committed a criminal offense,” he said.

After interviewing Dyke, law enforcement in the UK declined to pursue a criminal case against him for violating the CMA. However, the researcher’s legal travails have continued all the same.

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Keen to ensure that Dyke deleted the leaked data and application code he downloaded from the organization’s public GitHub repositories, Apperta’s lawyers sent multiple emails instructing Dyke to destroy or immediately deliver the data he found from the security vulnerability; to give confirmation he had not and would not publish the data he “unlawfully extracted;” and to give another confirmation that he had not shared this data with anyone.

Dyke insists he deleted the exposed Apperta Foundation data weeks ago, soon after first being asked by the Foundation. Documents provided by Dyke that were sent to Apperta attest that he “destroyed all Apperta Foundation CIC’s data and business information in my possession, the only such relevant material having been collated in February 2021 for the purposes of my responsible disclosure of serious IT security concerns to Apperta of March 2021 (“the Responsible Disclosure Materials”).”

Not Taking ‘Yes’ For An Answer

Nevertheless, Apperta’s legal team found that Dyke’s response was “not an acceptable undertaking,” and that Dyke posed an “imminent further threat” to the organization. Months of expensive legal wrangling ensued, as Apperta sought to force Dyke to delete any and all work he had done for the organization, including code he had developed and licensed as open source. All the while, Dyke fielded correspondence that suggests Apperta was preparing to take him to court. In recent weeks, the Foundation has inquired about his solicitor and whether he would be representing himself legally. Other correspondence has inquired about the best address at which to serve him an injunction and passed along forms to submit ahead of an interim hearing before a judge.

In late April, Dyke transmitted a signed undertaking and statement to Apperta that would seem to satisfy the Foundation’s demands. But the Foundation’s actions and correspondence have him worried that it may move ahead with legal action, anyway – though he is not sure exactly what for. “I don’t understand what the legal complaint would be. Is this about the database access? Could it be related to (intellectual property)?” Dyke said he doubts Apperta is pursuing “breach of contract” because he isn’t under contract with the Foundation and -in any case – followed the organization’s responsible disclosure policy when he found the exposed data, which should shield him from legal repercussions. 

In the meantime, the legal bills have grown. Dyke told The Security Ledger that his attorney’s fees in March and April totaled £20,000 and another £5,000 since – with no clear end in sight. “It is not closed. I have zero security,” Dyke wrote in a text message.

In a statement made to The Security Ledger, an Apperta Foundation spokesperson noted that, to date, it “has not issued legal proceedings against Mr. Dyke.” The Foundation said it took “immediate action” to isolate the breach and secure its systems. However, the Foundation also cast aspersions on Dyke’s claims that he was merely performing a public service in reporting the data leak to Apperta and suggested that the researcher had not been forthcoming.

“While Mr. Dyke claims to have been acting as a security researcher, it has always been our understanding that he used multiple techniques that overstepped the bounds of good faith research, and that he did so unethically.”

-Spokesperson for The Apperta Foundation

Asked directly whether The Foundation considered the legal matter closed, it did not respond, but acknowledged that “Mr. Dyke has now provided Apperta with an undertaking in relation to this matter.”

Apperta believes “our actions have been entirely fair and proportionate in the circumstances,” the spokesperson wrote.

Asked by The Security Ledger whether the Foundation had reported the breach to regulators (in the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office is the governing body), the Foundation did not respond but said that it “has been guided by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and our legal advisers regarding our duties as a responsible organisation.”

OK, Boomer. UK’s Cyber Crime Law Shows Its Age

Dyke’s dealings with the Apperta highlights the fears that many in the UK cybersecurity community have in regards to the CMA, a 30 year-old computer crime law that critics say is showing its age.

A 2020 report from TechUK found that 80% of respondents said that they have been worried about breaking the CMA when researching vulnerabilities or investigating cyber threat actors. Also, out of those same respondents, around 40% said the law has acted as a barrier to them or their colleagues and has even prevented cybersecurity employees from proactively safeguarding against security breaches. 

Those who support amending the CMA believe that the legislation poses several threats for Great Britain’s cyber and information security industry. Edward Parsons of the security firm F-Secure observed that “the CMA not only impacts our ability to defend victims, but also our competitiveness in a global market.” This downside, along with the ever-present talent shortage of cybersecurity professionals in the U.K., are reasons that Parsons believes justify a newly updated version of the CMA be passed into law. 

Dyke said the CMA looms over the work of security researchers. “You have to be very careful about participating in any, even formal bug bounties (…) If someone’s data gets breached, and it comes out that I’ve reported it, I could actually be picked up under the CMA for having done that hacking in the first place,” he said. 

Calls for Change

Calls for changes are growing louder in the UK. A January, 2020 report by the UK-based Criminal Law Reform Now Network (CLRNN) found that the Computer Misuse Act “has not kept pace with rapid technological change” and “requires significant reform to make it fit for the 21st century.” Among the recommendations of that report were allowances for researchers like Dyke to make “public interest defences to untie the hands of cyber threat intelligence professionals, academics and journalists to provide better protections against cyber attacks and misuse.”

Policy makers are taking note. This week, British Home Secretary Priti Patel told the audience at the National Cyber Security Centre’s (NCSC’s) CyberUK 2021 virtual event, that the CMA had served the country well, but that “now is the right time to undertake a formal review of the Computer Misuse Act.”

For researchers like Dyke, the changes can’t come soon enough. “The Act is currently broken and disproportionately affects hackers,” he wrote in an email. He said a reformed CMA should make allowances for the kinds of “accidental discoveries” that led him to the Apperta breach. “It needs to ensure safe harbour for professional, independent security researchers making Responsible Disclosure in the public interest.”

Carolynn van Arsdale contributed to this story.

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.