Anatomy of Hype

Lets see if I can break this down chronologically.

On July 12, 2012 a third party marketing firm hired by Verizon had a large database of Verizon user information ‘copied’. Verizon claims the incident was reported to authorities but no breach actually happened.

This statement from Verizon raises several questions. 1. Why did a 3rd party marketing firm have possession of this data which contained much more than just names and addresses. 2. How exactly was the data copied and 3. If there was no breach why were the authorities involved?

On Friday December 21st a twitter user with the handle @TibitXimer (since removed) posts to Twitter and Pastebin that he was in possession of 3 million leaked accounts including plaintext passwords of Verizon Wireless customers. ZDNet publishes an ‘exclusive’ Exclusive: Hacker nabs 3m Verizon customer records (title has since been changed) covering the supposed breach. Of course the original story had no comment from Verizon or any verification of the data.

With a little digging around I find the link to the original Pastebin post by @TibitXimer and his link to the data. A link that goes to a pay for download site. I thought that was a little odd and wasn’t about to pay to download a breach database. After making a few posts to Twitter I got a sample of the data.

I could tell right away that it was not Verizon Wireless data and it looked to me like possibly Verizon FiOS data. I also did not see any passwords, plaintext or otherwise. After sharing the data with some other security people we decided pretty quickly amongst ourselves that the data was very similar to some other data that had been floating around the net for a few months.

After attempting to get a response from @TibitXimer via twitter to confirm this new information his twitter account, pastebin link and download link all quickly disappeared.

By Saturday December 22nd Forbes writes an article Verizon Denies Hacker Leaked 300,000 Customers’ Data-UPDATE with an actual update from Verizon. ZDNet does not bother to update their article until 8:00PM EST that evening with nothing but a one-sentence denial from Verizon.

On Sunday December 23rd The Next Web seems to put all the pieces together After hacker disappears from Twitter, Verizon reveals customer data was leaked by a marketing firm and examines the
Verizon statement, the now disappeared @TibitXimer twitter feed and the statements from security professionals on the veracity of the data.

It is pretty obvious at this point that ZDNet has been trolled; while the results were spectacular (from a troll point of view) the troll itself was not very complicated or sophisticated. Now on Wednesday December 26th the original ZDNet story still stands with a one-sentence disclaimer from Verizon and a brief mention that the pastebin link no longer works. However, the still posted story makes no mention of the incorrectness of the data, its original source, its apparent age, the disappearance of the original poster and still alludes that this is a new Verizon breech.

I reached out to Charlie Osborne @ZDNetCharlie, the first name on the byline of the story, and asked if the story would be updated. She said that despite being listed first on the story she was not the lead contributor and therefore had no way to make edits. I’m not really sure I understand this, if my name was on the story I would want to make sure it was correct and would be calling my editor immediately even if it meant waking him up. I guess some people don’t care what their name gets attached to.

I shouldn’t be surprised at this as ZDnet has gotten rid of or lost all of their seasoned reporters. Charlie Osborne seems to have only recently begun writing technology after graduating with a medical anthropology degree. Zack Whittaker, who I presume is the lead contributor to the story hasn’t responded to my tweets asking for an update. He to has only recently started his writing career and it would appear that most of his stories lately have been centered on smartphones.

While I understand that new reporters need to start somewhere I would hope that ZDNet would have seasoned editors in place that would force fact checking, verification and confirmation of a story before publishing. Leaving a story such as this to fester on their website reflects poorly not just on ZDNet but on the InfoSec industry as a whole, not to mention the damage that it is doing to Verizon.

The excuse that it is Christmas does not fly; a news website has a responsibility to the public to publish accurate and timely information. There is no excuse in this modern age not to update stories with new information as it becomes available. ZDNet did update this story, twice, but the information they provided was inadequate and is now outdated.

I ask ZDNet to either completely rewrite the story on their site to reflect the currently known facts or to remove it altogether.

For those of you who have seen my talk ‘Media Hype in the Information Security Industry’ you should recognize that this is just another example of a big hack that never really happened. Unfortunately it will not be the last.

LATE UPDATE: It looks like I wasn’t the only one to notice the sloppy reporting at ZDNet on this story. Dissent at the Dataloss DB has published Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, we implement policies!