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.

Let’s face it, 2020 was a terrible year. The Coronavirus has killed almost two million people globally and caused trillions of dollars in economic disruption. Wildfires, floods and hurricanes have ravaged the United States, central America, Australia and parts of Asia.

But trying times have a way of peeling back the curtains and seeing our world with new eyes. COVID messed up our lives, and focused our attention on what really matters.

Maybe that’s why this very bad year has led to some really good conversations and insights here on The Security Ledger on topics ranging from election security, to security supply chains and the security risks of machine learning.

The Security Risks of Machine Learning

To start off, I pulled a March interview from Episode 180 that i did with security luminary Gary McGraw, the noted entrepreneur, author and now co-founder of the Berryville Institute of Machine Learning.

To wrap up 2020, I went back through 35 episodes that aired this year and selected four interviews that stuck out and, in my mind, captured the 2020 zeitgeist, as we delved into issues as diverse as the security implications of machine learning to the cyber threats to election systems and connected vehicles. We’re excerpting those conversations now in a special end of year edition of the podcast. We hope you enjoy it.

Taking Hardware Off Label to Save Lives

As winter turned to spring this year, the COVID virus morphed from something happening “over there” to a force that was upending life here at home. As ICUs in places like New York City rapidly filled, the U.S. faced shortage of respirators for critically ill patients. As they often do: the hacking community rose to the challenge. In our second segment, I pulled an interview from Episode 182 with Trammell Hudson of Lower Layer Labs. In this conversation, Trammell talks to us about Project Airbreak, his work to jailbreak a CPAP machines and how an NSA hacking tool helped make this inexpensive equipment usable as a makeshift respirator.

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COVID Spotlights Zoom’s Security Woes

One of the big cyber security themes of 2020 was of the security implications of changes forced by the COVID virus. Chief among them: the rapid shift to remote work and the embrace of technologies, such as Zoom that enabled remote work and remote meetings. For our third segment, I returned to Episode 183 and my interview with security researcher Patrick Wardle, a Principle Security Researcher at the firm JAMF. In April, he made headlines for disclosing a zero day vulnerability in the Zoom client – one that could have been used by an attacker to escalate their privileges on a compromised machines. That earned him a conversation with Zoom’s CEO that took place – to Wardle’s dismay – via Zoom.

Securing Connected Vehicles

Finally, while COVID and the ripple effects of the pandemic dominated the news in 2020, it isn’t as it was the only news. In the shadows of the pandemic, other critical issues continued to bubble. One of them is the increasing tensions about the power held by large companies and technology firms. In our final segment, I’m returning to my conversation with Assaf Harel of Karamba Security in Episode 193. Harel is one of the world’s top experts in the security of connected vehicles. In this conversation, Assaf and I talk about the state of vehicle cyber security: what the biggest cyber risks are to connected cars. We also go deep on the right to repair -and how industries like automobiles can balance consumer rights with security and privacy concerns.


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. 

Between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, consumers across the U.S. spent the weekend snapping up deals on home electronics like smart TVs, game consoles and appliances. Total season-to date holiday spending, including Cyber Monday, is over the $100 billion threshold according to data from Adobe. 

Lots of factors drive consumer decisions to buy one product over another: price and features chief among them. But what about cyber security? Unlike, say, the automobile marketplace, concerns about safety and security are not top of mind when consumers step into a Best Buy or Wal Mart looking for a new flat screen TV. And ratings systems for cyber security, from organizations like UL and Consumer Reports, are in their infancy and not widely used.

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found to have numerous, serious security flaws that could have left it open to remote access and data theft – all without need of a login or password. And TCL acknowledged to Security Ledger that access to on-board cameras and microphones is available to company support personnel, though only with the permission of the owner, according to a company statement.  

This isn’t a new occurrence. Consumer Reports warned in 2018 about vulnerabilities in smart TVs by Samsung, TCL and Roku that used Roku’s smart TV platform.

Expert: Patch Bluekeep Now or Face WannaCry Scenario

But concerns about the cyber security of smart home electronics go way beyond TVs. As our guest this week, Yossi Appleboum of the firm Sepio Systems tells us, software and hardware supply chains are rife with vulnerable – if not compromised components. And companies, like consumers, often have no idea whether a product they’ve deployed might be secretly spying on them, or channeling sensitive data to an unknown party or country. 

While many organizations think the notion of keyboards, monitors and other hardware “spying” on them as the stuff of “James Bond” movies, Appleboum says that the threat is real – and much more common that either companies or consumers are aware.

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Appleboum’s firm, Sepio Systems, provides visibility, policy enforcement and “rogue” device mitigation capabilities, to organizations concerned about the risks posed by hardware assets.

In this conversation, Yossi and talk about the supply chain security risk and how concerned consumers should be about the security of electronic devices being pushed on them this holiday season. 


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.