Ashley Madison Hack – Review and Implications

On July 12, 2015, the IT-systems of Ashley Madison (owned by Avid Life Media), a Canada-based online dating service for married people, were hacked. The attackers, who call themselves Impact Team, released a message claiming they had taken control over all of the company’s systems and extracted databases containing client details, source codes, email correspondence and more.According to the message, the attack occurred in response to Ashley Madison‘s exposure of its clients – although the company offered and charged clients for a full profile deletion, this, in fact, was never carried out. Impact Team demanded that Ashley Madison and another website owned by Avid Life Media (ALM) cease their activity and shut down in 30 days, otherwise all stolen data would be published.

One month later, on August 16, 2015, Impact Team realized its threats – a link for downloading the data was posted on a password-protected hacking forum on the Darknet. The leaked data contained details of 37 million Ashley Madison users. Additionally, the attackers released data, containing mostly internal company information, in two additional stages.

The message containing the link for downloading the data stolen in the Ashley Madison hack
The message containing the link for downloading the data stolen in the Ashley Madison hack

The Attack

The infiltration vector used by the attackers is not known. According to ex-Ashley Madison CEO, the attack was performed by a provider or a former employee who possessed legitimate login credentials. Apparently, as in an APT attack, Impact Team had access to the company systems for a long period of time. They stated that they had collected information for years and that the attack started long before the data was exposed.

In an email interview with members of Impact Team, they said “they worked hard to make a fully undetectable attack, then got in and found nothing to bypass – Nobody was watching. No security. The only thing was a segmented network. You could use Pass1234 from the internet to VPN to root on all servers.

The Leaked Data

Despite the fact that Ashley Madison maintained a low security level on its systems, the clients data was stored with many more precautions – full credit card data was not stored, but instead only the last four digits, in accordance with the company’s declared policy. Nevertheless, information about payments that contained names and addresses of the clients were stored and later used by cybercriminals.

The passwords of Ashley Madison‘s clients were encrypted using a bcrypt algorithm, which is considered to be extremely strong. Another security measure taken by the company was the separation of databases for email addresses and passwords. However, an error in one of the exposed source codes enabled the decryption of 11 million passwords in only 10 days. A security researcher decrypted another 4,000 “strongly encrypted” passwords, due to the fact that they were widely used passwords.

The ten most common Ashley Madison cracked passwords encrypted in a bcrypt algorithm
The ten most common Ashley Madison cracked passwords encrypted in a bcrypt algorithm

Moreover, Ashley Madison saved IP addresses of its users for as long as five years. Thus, almost every user behind each profile can be identified.

The Consequences

The release of the data led to numerous discussions on hacking forums regarding ways to exploit the data. Some hackers focused on extortion schemes, while others offered to initiate spear-phishing attacks based on the leaked data.

Darknet forum member explains how to look for users by their corporate email address
Darknet forum member explains how to look for users by their corporate email address

In other attack reported by TrendMicro, hackers distributed email messages allegedly from Impact Team or law firms. They asked for money in exchange for removing the recipient’s name from the leak or for initiating a class action lawsuit against Ashley Madison.

A fraud email message allegedly sent by Impact Team
A fraud email message allegedly sent by Impact Team

Besides financial damage, according to press publications, three people committed suicide after the leaked data was released.

Moreover, not only its clients, but the company itself suffered damage because of the exposure of confidential information. Exposure of internal correspondence of Ashley Madison‘s executives revealed the company’s improper business activity, such as hacking into its competitors systems, creating fake profiles on its website and more. Finally, Ashley Madison’s financial losses are estimated at more than 200 million dollars, since the company was about to launch an initial public offering later this year.

Conclusions

Analysis of the leaked email correspondence of Ashley Madison‘s executives demonstrates that they were fully aware of the importance of cyber security measures. In the beginning of 2012, following the cyber-attack on the Grinder mobile application, the company’s then-CTO expressed his concerns regarding passwords that were stored fully unencrypted. Later in 2012, an encryption for passwords was initiated. On another occasion, after the email correspondence leak of General Petraeus, an employee suggested implementing an encrypted email service for Ashley Madison users. Despite the severity of the hack, several measures taken by the company, such as the encryption of the users’ passwords, reduced the damage caused by the leak. Nevertheless, the encryption, even a strong one such as bcrypt, is not enough and a password complexity policy should be implemented in the organization. Using strong passwords, maintaining different and complex passwords for the high-privileged accounts of the IT systems and restricting the access to these accounts will limit the attackers’ ability to move laterally in the organization’s network and take control of it.


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