A company that monitors children’s online activity has defended its response to the discovery that one of its databases was exposed to the net.
By Zoe Kleinman, Technology reporter
When Chris Vickery discovered the security risk and alerted uKnowKids, it accused him of hacking its systems.
The US firm’s chief told the BBC he was concerned that Mr Vickery had refused to delete screenshots of the data, which included images of children.
Mr Vickery said that he wanted to ensure uKnowKids dealt with the issue.
Chris Vickery found millions of text messages and images plus 1,700 “detailed child profiles” belonging to uKnowKids customers via the search engine Shodan.
The MacKeeper security expert said the database was not password protected. uKnowKids’ chief executive Steve Woda put this down to “human error” saying a third-party had installed it.
The vulnerability was fixed within 90 minutes of notification, uKnowKids said.
Mr Vickery said he had deleted the files he had accessed but kept a few “redacted” screenshots as a record, in case the firm tried to cover up the breach.
Mr Woda said his firm would not have acted that way.
“We’re not running from it,” he said.
“I am super thankful to Mr Vickery for sharing [his discovery] with us.
“Where the line was crossed was when we said: ‘Can we reassure ourselves and our customers that the data we know has been exploited, will not be exploited?’
“During the phone call I asked him to delete [the data he had], he told us no, he wouldn’t.”
Mr Woda said he also suggested that the pair work together to publicise the vulnerability and involve the Federal Trade Commission.
“If somebody takes your bike and you say give it back, are you intimidating them?” he asked.
“I have no animosity. I just wish he would have respected our customers’ data.”
He added that he used the word “hack” in a blog post on the firm’s website in order to convey to his customers the seriousness of the situation.
Chris Vickery said that he was offended by the suggestion that he had acted illegally.
“I am not inclined to cooperate on joint releases with someone who directly accuses me of criminal activity. I have done nothing wrong,” he said.
The row highlights the grey area in which ethical hackers operate – seeking out security weaknesses and vulnerabilities and informing the data owners rather than exploiting them. They typically act without obtaining consent in advance, and deal with very sensitive material.
“Anyone researching security has a duty of care,” said cybersecurity expert Professor Alan Woodward from Surrey University.
“As this data concerns children, I would have hoped that the researcher would have exercised great caution and acted in such a way that he was not adding to the risks of the data being copied into the wild – notwithstanding that the data was publicly visible anyway.
“I think both sides in this story could have handled it better.”