VTech vs EDtech

This week we’ve seen news of a major breach of users’ data from an online service run by VTech.  What sets this one apart is that personal information was stolen from hundreds of thousands of children’s accounts, associated with some of the millions of adult accounts that were also compromised.

Troy Hunt has posted a detailed analysis of the breach and other problems with VTech’s web applications.  You can read it here on Troy’s site or here on Ars Technica.  I encourage you to read it.

Here is what Troy Hunt had to say about the severity of the breach: 

“When it’s hundreds of thousands of children including their names, genders and birthdates, that’s off the charts. When it includes their parents as well – along with their home address – and you can link the two and emphatically say “Here is 9 year old Mary, I know where she lives and I have other personally identifiable information about her parents (including their password and security question)”, I start to run out of superlatives to even describe how bad that is.”

When I read this paragraph, head nodding, I thought of the running list I keep of my own kids’ identifiable personal information I’ve been able to gain unauthorized access to through remote attack vulnerabilities in online services used at their schools. (A remote attack is something that does not require access to the user’s network traffic, and can be done from anywhere).

The list is below. I was able to collect all of this by exercising flaws in web pages and interfaces in the education-related services that hold my kids’ information.  It wasn’t all in one place like the VTech information but goes far beyond what was held there.

  • full name
  • gender
  • date of birth
  • in-class behavior records
  • reading level and progress assessments
  • math skill and progress assessments
  • in-class test and quiz scores
  • report cards
  • ability to send private message to a student through an app
  • voice recordings
  • usernames (some with passwords)
  • password hashes
  • school lunch assistance status
  • name and address of school
  • teacher name
  • classmate names (through class rosters)
  • class photos with students labeled by name
  • parent email addresses
  • parent names
  • home address
  • home phone number

My kids are still in elementary school.  Simply by going to school they’ve already had all of this information exposed to the possibility of unauthorized access and collection.

I don’t have knowledge that any of this information has been subject to unauthorized access — but the only difference between a responsible disclosure and a data breach is the ethics of the person who finds the vulnerability.   Most of these vulnerabilities exposed many thousands of students to potential breaches, some of them exposed millions of students to potential breaches of their personal and educational information.

This is a system-wide problem that educators, parents and technology providers must work together to address.  Things are improving but we have a long way to go.  Here are some previous posts on that topic:

Why we need standards: part one of many

A starting point: end-user web app security test plan

Edsurge: Why student data security matters

 

 

IXL Security Observations

In this post I’ll discuss my observations of the security practices of IXL.com.  IXL is a signatory of the Student Privacy Pledge. The Student Privacy Pledge website does not publish the dates that companies signed the pledge but I observed that IXL was added to the Student Privacy Pledge signatory page after February 11th.

Overview of the service

IXL.com is a math and English “adaptive learning” web service that also offers iOS and Android apps. Students play educational ‘games’ and extensive metrics are compiled to assess the students’ level and progress in math and english.

Summary of observations

The web site is served almost exclusively in HTTP. Usernames and passwords are sent with an HTTPS POST but the rest of the traffic is HTTP. Though the login credentials are protected, this still poses a significant risk of session hijack and data snooping attacks which could expose students’ names, affiliations and their assessment metrics as collected by the service. The risk is heightened by the fact that the teacher account has a roster page that displays the names and current passwords of all the students in a given class.  This roster is sent across the network without encryption if a teacher accesses it, and could be also be viewed by an attacker who has hijacked a teacher login session by sniffing the teacher’s authentication cookies off the network.

The mobile apps appear to have only a student-facing functionality. The lack of encryption for all but the the transaction that posts the username and password is consistent with that of the web app.

Authentication controls were in place to prevent remote attacks through enumeration of student or teacher IDs. Authentication tokens were invalidated when a user logged out of the session.

Notification and response

I notified the company of these observations on March 5th.  They got back to me a couple of days ago and have been very responsive since then.  I am including the company’s response to the observations I’d sent, with their permission:

As you noted, HTTPS is currently only used on IXL to protect login credentials and credit card data. Any risk created by using HTTP on the rest of the site is mitigated by the fact that, while technically possible, it is difficult for a determined hacker to “sniff” a user’s cookie value off of a modern network and navigate as if signed in as that user. However, we have been working to move our entire site over to HTTPS to eliminate this vulnerability. Though the vast majority of sites still use HTTP to serve up their content, we want to take every step we can to keep our site and our users secure.

Student passwords are intentionally stored in a reversible format to allow instructors to view them from their rosters. This allows instructors to retrieve them without making changes but, as you mentioned, makes them less secure when transmitted over HTTP. As we move to serve all IXL content over HTTPS, this risk will be eliminated, but it is worth noting that passwords for instructor-created students are the only passwords stored this way. Passwords for teachers, administrators, and parents who purchase their own accounts are all securely hashed when stored.

Thank you for pointing out that user credentials are included in the URL of the POST transaction when signing in on our Android app. Our engineering team has written a fix to remove this vulnerability, and we will patch it in once the update has been thoroughly tested by our Quality Assurance team.

I will add three thoughts of my own:

Sniffing cookies: For a determined hacker, sniffing cookies from a modern network and navigating a site as another user is not difficult at all. In 2011 a firefox plugin called “Firesheep” automated the process.  Today, a free program called “Cookie Cadger” automates the process and can be used with a stock Macbook Pro to execute this attack, called “Session Hijacking”.  In 2013 I worked on a story with Dana Liebelson of Mother Jones describing the problem and the short embedded video below, from that article, shows a demonstration.

The vast majority of sites still use HTTP to serve content:  Certainly true but it’s a flawed comparison.  The vast majority of sites don’t have usernames and passwords to create authenticated sessions, and don’t collect personal information from students.  The correct general use comparison here is social media or web-email sites, which typically do use encryption (well, since Firesheep anyway).  The OWASP Transport Security Layer (TLS) cheat sheet includes a rule to use TLS (another name for SSL) for all login pages and all authenticated pages.

Plaintext passwords:   Storing passwords in reversible formats is clearly counter to best practices for general use and transmitting them unencrypted makes it worse.  But, coupled with SSL perhaps it could be considered as a defined exception for classroom apps, so long as SSL+(HSTS required and secure flag if load balancers allow it) was there, and if personal information collected by the service was restricted to a less-sensitive subset. There is a practical reason behind it in this case. This is the sort of thing that might be in an edtech-specific security standard, if there was consensus that it is acceptable practice in defined circumstances.

Testing notes

I have access to my child’s paid student account, and also set up demo teacher and student accounts. Screen shots in this document are from the demo teacher and student accounts but all of the student account observations have been confirmed in the paid student account.

Detailed Observations

Sample reports
Screen shots of student assessment reports are shown below. In my demo accounts the data is sparse but the categories of data can be seen in these captures.

Student account

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Teacher Account

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Lack of encryption
The login form is served with HTTP, as are authenticated sessions. The username and password are sent with an HTTPS POST transaction. Though the login credentials are protected at login, this still poses a significant risk of session hijack and data snooping attacks which could expose students’ names, affiliations and their assessment metrics collected and compiled by the service.  (See my previous post on session cookies to read more about the risk of session hijacks posed by transmitting session cookies without encryption.)

Screen shots below show the login form and authenticated session, with URL indicating HTTP.  The session shown is a student account, but the teacher account I set up had the same behavior, as I will show later in the post.

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A sample of the transactions is shown below. In the lower pane, the HTTPS POST of credentials and some HTTP responses from ixl.com are shown. The transaction selected in the proxy shows an HTTP GET, with user cookies sent without encryption.

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Transmission of plain text passwords without encryption
From a teacher account, a the ‘roster’ page loads a class roster and displays each student’s current password in plain text. This reveals that the passwords are not hashed at the server, and since the transfer is HTTP, it poses a risk that an attacker could obtain these passwords through direct observation of traffic or session hijack of a teacher account.  An additional observation is that encrypting usernames and passwords when users log in shows a recognition by the company that this information should be protected, but sending entire class rosters with plaintext passwords is a much larger risk than exposing a single user’s credentials.

The screen shots below show the class roster page in the browser, and the class roster data in the proxy

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Notice also that the usernames contain the full first and last names of the students.  These are assigned by the service when the classroom is set up so there is no option for the teacher to make usernames that don’t include the students’ full names.

Mobile app transmits username and password in URL
When a user logs in from the mobile app, the username and password are included in the URL of the POST transaction used to authenticate the session. Though this information is encrypted in transit, best practice is to send all sensitive data in the HTTP message body, not in the URL.

This is documented in OWASP Application Security Verification Standard requirement 9.3, which is part of the lowest specified set of verification requirements, (Opportunistic).

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The OWASP Application Security FAQ has more information.  Consider that since the student usernames contain their full first and last names, logging as described below would capture the usernames and passwords, and the full names of the students.

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The proxy log below shows the HTTPS POST with credentials in URL, and that transactions after authentication are sent with HTTP, in a manner similar to the behavior of the web app.

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(Updated after posting to reorder the sections – no content changed)

Student Privacy Pledge Signatories With Unencrypted Logins

On February 11th Natasha Singer reported in the NY Times that many companies that collect student information had signed the Student Privacy Pledge, while having logins that were not encrypted, exposing usernames and passwords — and the associated accounts — to unauthorized access.   The Student Privacy Pledge signatories promise to: (highlights are mine)

Maintain a comprehensive security program that is reasonably designed to protect the security, privacy, confidentiality, and integrity of student personal information against risks – such as unauthorized access or use, or unintended or inappropriate disclosure – through the use of administrative, technological, and physical safeguards appropriate to the sensitivity of the information.

The OWASP guideline and widely accepted best practice is to encrypt login forms, transfer of credentials and all subsequent authenticated transfers during the login session.  (This one of the things that SSL/HTTPS does).   It is one of the most elementary security measures a web service can implement.   Any form of student information is sensitive enough to be reasonably afforded this basic level of protection.

Today, I counted eight Student Privacy Pledge signatories that appear to hold personal information about students, yet do not encrypt the transmission of their users’ login credentials.  Seven of them had already signed when the story ran on February 11th and have not made changes, and one (Cambium Learning Group, covered in earlier posts) signed the pledge while having unencrypted logins, among many other security problems.

My method was the following:

  1. Visit the website of the signatory
  2. Decide if it appears to collect student information (has a student login, for example)
  3. If so, do a login attempt and confirm in a proxy that the username and password are sent plain text without encryption

Since I don’t have login accounts for most of these services I did not do further checks about what happens after login.

The sites I observed to still be sending usernames and passwords without encryption were:

[Updated 3/25/15 to show results of doing the same check, after I was contacted by a couple of services letting me know they’d added SSL]

brainhive  [No login encryption on 3/25]

code.org [No login encryption on 3/25]

edgenuity [No login encryption on 3/25]

writerkey [Encrypted login on 3/25]

myon [Encrypted login on 3/25]

orglib [Encrypted login on 3/25]

readorium [Encrypted login on 3/25]

raz-kids (Cambium Learning Group) [Encrypted login on 3/25]

Raz-kids and data security

In this post I’ll be describing my recent observations of the data security of the Raz-Kids/LearningA-Z online reading instruction application. These problems were described in a NY Times article by Natasha Singer on February 8th.

Before jumping in, a few words about disclosure:  I first reported lack of SSL to LearningA-Z in October 2013. I got an acknowledgement of my inquiry but no further correspondence from the company.  On Feb 2 of this year I sent the detailed information spelled out below.  I’ve had some contact with the company since then and waited to disclose until now as they worked on fixes.  A month later, a number of serious problems remain open, and the company has left an insecure API open after releasing updated mobile apps that no longer need it to function properly.

As described in my previous post, Raz-kids collects information about students and their reading level and progress.  Some of this is visible from student accounts and all of it is visible from teacher and parent accounts.

My observations in early February included the following problems:

  • No SSL used for teacher, student or parent website access, or with the mobile apps
  • Passwords stored in plain text, not hashed at the server
  • Presenting teacher username to mobile app caused full class roster with plaintext passwords to be transmitted without encryption
    • This interface could also be exercised from the browser
  • Option to set up student accounts with no password required to enter the account
  • Once in a student account, it was possible to register as a parent with no verification needed by the teacher before access was granted to student reading assessment information

Since then, SSL has been added to student accounts but not teacher or parent accounts, teacher approval is now required before parent accounts can access student assessments, and new Android and iOS apps have been released that no longer transmit plain text passwords for an entire class (though this API is still functional and in use by older versions of the apps).

In the remainder of this post I’ll describe details of the problems that remain open.

SSL/Encryption

The student website and latest mobile apps now use SSL to encrypt credentials and data. (More on mobile below).  However the teacher and parent accounts do not.  Since the teacher account has access to many students’ assessment information and voice recordings, and the parent account has access to student assessment information, there is more risk of data exposure from these accounts than from the student accounts that are now encrypted.  The SSL configuration is also flawed. It receives Qualys SSLLABS score of ‘F’ for vulnerability to POODLE TLS attack, a TLS variant of the original POODLE SSLv3 attack.

The following screen shots show teacher and parent logins served without encryption, and a proxy log showing the username/passwords being sent without encryption for a teacher account.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 12.30.34 AMScreen Shot 2015-03-04 at 12.38.42 AMWhen a parent account login is started from an HTTPS page, the browser actually notifies the user that the credentials are being sent without encryption. The proxy log  confirms this, and the rest of the parent session is served without SSL/HTTPS.

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Here is a summary of the SSL report

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Passwords stored in plain text

The following screen capture shows a trial teacher account displaying a roster page with student names (redacted) and passwords. This establishes that Raz-Kids is not following the best practice of hashing passwords at the server.  Teacher and parent passwords are treated similarly. Notice also that the page has been served with HTTP, meaning no encryption as these are transmitted across the network.

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Class roster with plaintext passwords transmitted without encryption

Previous versions of the Android and iOS apps transmit entire class rosters with plaintext passwords, unencrypted, when presented with a teacher username, and rely on this interface to function.  Raz-Kids has chosen to leave this API functional even after releasing updated apps that don’t rely on this interface. This means that users are not forced to update, and if they still have the older versions they are still causing this information to be transferred.  The interface could also still be exploited by an attacker.  User agent filtering was added in mid-February, but it is straightforward to change a browser’s user agent string to match one of the mobile apps and exercise the interface from a browser.

A portion of this response structure, from a trial account, is shown below

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I’ll close this post with a quote from the company that develops Raz-Kids, as reported in the NY Times:

“We are confident that we have taken the necessary steps to protect all student and teacher data at all times and comply with all federal and state laws,”

Raz-kids *does* collect student personal information.

In my next post I’ll have more to say about security problems I’ve observed with Raz-Kids, but first I want to start with their recent statements that they don’t collect students’ personal information.  It’s important to document what information they do collect, and it’s relevant to the discussion of how their data security practices have put student personal information at risk.

In an article published February 8th in the New York Times about data security problems in ed-tech apps, a representative for Cambium Learning Group, the developer of Raz-Kids was quoted as saying that Raz-Kids does not store “sensitive” personal information about students like addresses or phone numbers.   Later on twitter, a company representative took it further, stating “Raz-Kids holds no personal data.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 11.15.32 PM

One of my kids has a Raz-Kids account and I have seen first-hand what information the service collects.

From the FTC COPPA FAQ Page, here is a summary of what qualifies as children’s personal information under COPPA. Though COPPA does not always apply in educational settings, I view this list as a very good yardstick for what defines student personal information. I’ve highlighted the line items most relevant to Raz-Kids.

What is Personal Information?

The amended Rule defines personal information to include:

  • First and last name;
  • A home or other physical address including street name and name of a city or town;
  • Online contact information;
  • A screen or user name that functions as online contact information;
  • A telephone number;
  • A social security number;
  • A persistent identifier that can be used to recognize a user over time and across different websites or online services;
  • A photograph, video, or audio file, where such file contains a child’s image or voice;
  • Geolocation information sufficient to identify street name and name of a city or town; or
  • Information concerning the child or the parents of that child that the operator collects online from the child and combines with an identifier described above.

Here’s a summary of what raz-kids collects, all of which is covered by the list above.  I believe common sense also tells us that the information below is personal information about a student, and that all of this information is worthy of data security protections.

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  • Raz-kids generates reading level assessments and other metrics of a child’s reading proficiency.  This falls under the last bullet above, information concerning the child that the operator collects online from the child and combines with one of the other identifiers.   Screen shots of the reading level progress chart (annotated) and a quiz result showing skills to work on are shown below.

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More soon on data security.