19-Year-Old Canadian Facing Criminal Charges For Downloading Publicly-Accessible Documents

A 19-year-old Canadian is being criminally-charged for accessing a website. The Nova Scotian government’s Freedom of Information portal (FOIPOP) served up documents it shouldn’t have and now prosecutors are thinking about adding charges on top of the ten-year sentence the teen could already be facing. (via Databreaches.net)

Journalists first spotted the problem April 5th, when the FOI portal was taken offline. The Internal Services Minister, Patricia Arab, refused to provide details about the portal’s sudden unavailability. It wasn’t until the following week that the press was given more information and those affected notified.

Even once the government learned of the breach, it waited until Wednesday to begin notifying affected people. Arab said they held off notifying people was because police suggested it would help them in their investigation.

Seems logical, except…

But [Halifax Police Superintendent Jim] Perrin told reporters police did not make that request. He could not say if advising people would have compromised the investigation. The province’s protocols for a privacy breach state it is supposed to inform people as soon as possible, unless otherwise instructed by law enforcement.

The suspect obtained 7,000 documents from the Freedom of Information portal. Apparently around 250 of those contained unredacted personal information. Here’s how the government portrayed the supposed hacking:

Government officials said someone got in by “exploiting a vulnerability in the system.” The person wrote a script allowing them to alter the website’s URL, which then granted access to the personal information.

Internal Services found more than 7,000 PDF documents had been downloaded by a “non-authorized user” in early March. They filed a complaint with police on Saturday.

A script made it easier, but a script wasn’t required. The URLs for FOI documents are incremental. As software engineer Evan D’Entremont points out, anyone could have done what the supposed “hacker” did.

The way the documents are stored is simple. They’re available at a specific URL, which David Fraser, a Halifax-based privacy lawyer, was happy to provide:

https://foipop.novascotia.ca/foia/views/_AttachmentDownload.jsp?attachmentRSN=1234

Document number 1235 is stored at https://foipop.novascotia.ca/foia/views/_AttachmentDownload.jsp?attachmentRSN=1235.

Guess where document 1236 is stored? This is not a new problem. In fact, it was recognized over a decade ago as one of the top ten issues affecting web application security. All [the “hacker’] had to do is add.

All this “hacker” did was automate the retrieval of published documents from the government’s FOI portal. That’s it. This wasn’t an attempt to access personal info. That problem lies with the government, which did not properly secure documents it hadn’t redacted yet. As D’Etremont points out, plenty of other government websites use the same software for document access. (Searching “inurl:attachmentRSN“will bring up a handful of government websites, including Nova Scotia’s temporarily disabled FOI portal).

But other sites have taken care to wall off publicly-available documents from others they’re not prepared to make public by using a PublicPortal subfolder. Nova Scotia’s site apparently did not, hence the teen’s ability to access unredacted documents. This isn’t evidence of fraudulent access or malicious hacking. This is evidence of government carelessness.

The question remains, was the access fraudulent?

Remember what I said about the other installations being called “PublicPortal”? And how 6750 of the 7000 records were public anyways, and how this system is literally designed for facilitating “access to information?” Looking at it further, there are no authentication mechanisms, no password protection, no access restrictions. It’s very clear that the software is intended to serve as a public repository of documents.

It’s also very clear that there at least 250 documents improperly stored there by the province. Documents that the province had a responsibility to protect, and failed.

This wasn’t a criminal act. This was simply efficient harvesting of publicly-available documents. If some documents weren’t supposed to be publicly-available, the blame lies with the government for failing to secure them. The fact that the government decided to get police involved gives this the ugly appearance of scapegoating. This is an embarrassed government body trying to turn its mistake into the malicious works of teen hacker.

It would be very surprising to see these charges stick. The URLs — and the documents they held — were publicly-accessible. But if they do stick — and the Halifax PD has stated it may add more charges — it will be due to the Nova Scotia government’s unwillingness to take responsibility for its own carelessness.

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