State hacks back after secret police information leaks online

2013-05-26 14:00

The state’s IT agency has brought in its own hackers to protect ­government websites from international cyberattacks after the website of the SA Police Service (SAPS) was cracked this week.

In possibly the biggest cyberattack against government, the names, numbers and addresses of thousands of crime whistle-blowers were published on the internet.

In the same week, following a ­tip-off, City Press alerted the City of Johannesburg to a serious security hole in a key online database, which exposed thousands of ratepayers’ personal and account ­information to prying eyes.

Network-security experts warn that South African government sites and servers are ripe targets for cyberattacks, with the exploit against the police by a hacker named DomainerAnon simply a taste of what could come.

DomainerAnon – who said the hack was to avenge the 34 miners shot at Marikana – released 16 000 crime whistle-blowers’ details online.

The details were extracted from the police website, where crime tip-offs and other information is submitted to the police.

The hacker also publicly released a further 800 login and contact details of police officials, including cellphone numbers.

Police spokesperson Brigadier Phuti Setati insisted that no confidential or case information was ­released and said the security hole had been plugged by the State Information Technology Agency (Sita), which hosts the SAPS website.

Auditor-General Terence Nombembe, who has been warning national and provincial departments about poor IT security, said that until recently government did not have a framework to deal with vulnerabilities in its IT systems.

“That’s where the loophole is at the moment. It’s basically rolling out the initiatives to those recommendations we made to departments. But vulnerability (to hackers) is still there because not all the departments have been able to ­respond with speed to this level of vulnerability,” he said.

Crime Intelligence cybercrime experts have been tasked to track down the perpetrator.

But City Press tracked several of the whistle-blowers whose names and details were released in the hack.

Among the whistle-blowers was a Northern Cape woman who tipped off police about a serious ­attack on a relative, naming the suspect. “He is still roaming around freely. Police never did anything, even though he should have been charged with attempted murder. If he sees this complaint on the internet he might get angry and start victimising me,” she said.

Sita executive for ICT service delivery Mmakgosi Mosupi said the agency was now reviewing ­security mechanisms on all the government websites it hosted.

“The process involves doing penetration tests and vulnerability scans to close any loopholes. Sita has joined forces with other government institutions to mitigate against hacks and we are continuously monitoring websites for any abnormal activities,” she said.

Recent cyberattacks on state-owned web properties include last January’s cyberheist of R42?million from Postbank and an attack on the Sanral e-tolls website.

City Press was able to access ­Johannesburg’s online “credit management system” using logon details that could be easily guessed by anyone with limited technical knowledge.

We were able to view details of account holders who owed the city as much as R18?million and access telephone numbers, addresses and account balances.

We could even have cancelled disconnections or have allocated accounts to a contractor for ­disconnections.

Craig Rosewarne, chairperson of the Information Security Group Africa, said his group had repeatedly warned government decision makers of the importance of data security. “Unfortunately, we’re just going to have to wait for more ­incidents to take place and more public pressure around these ­issues before we see the urgency needed.”

Shortly after we alerted the City of Johannesburg to the security vulnerability, the hole was plugged.

Communications director Gabu Tugwana said the access was from “a city-linked outside person”, ­although City Press’ informant had no link to the city.

» A person tipping off police that family members may be harbouring a murder suspect in the killing of her niece;

» An Indian national reporting death threats from a caller in South Africa, along with providing telephone numbers and the name of the suspect;

» A soldier threatening to take “the law into my own hands” in frustration at police delays in investigating the ­murder of his son; and

» A man offering police a R10?000 ­reward to find the suspect, whom he names, in his wife’s murder.

– Additional reporting by Xolani Mbanjwa

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