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On Sunday, a group of attackers known as LulzSec, or the Lulz Boat, began obliquely taking credit for the breach via a series of Twitter messages. One such post read: "What's wrong with @PBS, how come all of its servers are rooted? How come their database is seized? Why are passwords cracked?"
The attackers said they hacked the PBS website in retaliation for the Frontline television program's portrayal of Bradley Manning, who's suspected of leaking a massive number of files to WikiLeaks. But in a message posted to Pastebin, the attackers emphasized that they didn't delete--or in Unix-speak, rm (remove)--files: "We rooted the boxes. We did not destroy the boxes or content. No rm's. We did not take over the homepage of pbs.org although we could have."
The attackers said that they exploited the PBS website by using a zero-day vulnerability in MovetableType 4, the content management system (CMS) used by PBS. Attackers uploaded a PHP shell script, which they accessed to effect root-level access to a server.
According an email from Chris Wysopal, a security researcher at Veracode, "CMS systems have been notorious for poor security over the past few years and have resulted in many compromises." Interestingly, he said, MoveableType published a new security update just seven days ago.
In the case of the PBS website hack, "once the attackers were able to execute code on the Web servers they were able to escalate privileges" because the servers were running an outdated version of Linux from 2008, said Wysopal. "Once they had root access they were able to dump and crack the passwords used on that machine," using a tool called Havij to automate the process of password and data retrieval. Because many PBS users reused their passwords, attackers were then able to gain access to the CMS, among other databases.
According to an interview with one of the attackers conducted by Forbes after the attack, PBS administrators struggled to regain control, since their user accounts and passwords were deleted by attackers. Ultimately, administrators were able to restore a backup database to regain website control.
Security experts said that PBS should have done a better job of keeping its systems patched, and its passwords strong. "While PBS is the victim here, the passwords disclosed for most affiliates are embarrassingly predictable," said Chester Wisniewski, a senior security advisor at Sophos Canada, in a blog post. "There was absolutely no skill involved in this attack, as it used freely available tools to exploit the databases."
In this new Tech Center report, we profile five database breaches--and extract the lessons to be learned from each. Plus: A rundown of six technologies to reduce your risk. Download it here (registration required).