Gravatar “Breach” Exposes Data of 100+ Million Users | #emailsecurity | #phishing | #ransomware


The security alert company HaveIBeenPwned notified users that the profile information of 114 million Gravatar users had been leaked online in what they characterized as a data breach. Gravatar denies that it was hacked.

Here’s a screenshot of the email that was sent to HaveIBeenPwned users that characterized the Gravatar event as a data breach:

 

Gravatar Enumeration Vulnerability

The user information of every person with a Gravatar account was open to being downloaded using software that “scrapes” the data.

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While technically that is not a breach, the manner in which user information was stored by Gravatar made it easy for a person with malicious intent to obtain user information which could then be used as part of another attack to gain passwords and access.

Gravatar accounts are public information. However the individual user profile accounts are not publicly listed in a way that can easily be browsed. Ordinarily a person would have to know account information like the username in order to find the account and all the publicly available information.

A security researcher discovered in late 2020 that Gravatar user account information was recorded in numerical order. A news report from the time described how the security researcher peeked into a JSON file linked in the profile page revealed an ID number that corresponded to the numerical number assigned to that user.

The problem with that user identification number is that the profile could be reached with that number.

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Because the number was not randomly generated but in numerical order, anyone wishing to access the all of the Gravatar usernames could access that information by requesting and scraping the user profiles in numerical order.

Data Scraping Event

A data breach is defined as when an unauthorized person gains access to information that is not publicly available.

The Gravatar information was publicly available but an outsider would have to know the username of the Gravatar user in order to gain access to the Gravatar user profile. Additionally the email address of that user was stored in an insecure encrypted manner (called an MD5 hash).

An MD5 hash is insecure and can easily be unencrypted (also known as cracked). Storing email addresses in the MD5 format provided only minor security protection.

That means that once an attacker downloaded the usernames and the email MD5 hash it was then a simple matter for the user’s email address to be extracted.

According to the security researcher who initially discovered the username enumeration vulnerability, Gravatar only had “virtually no rate limiting” which means that a scraper bot could request millions of user profiles without being stopped or challenged for suspicious behavior.

According to the news report from October 2020 that originally divulged the vulnerability:

“While data provided by Gravatar users on their profiles is already public, the easy user enumeration aspect of the service with virtually no rate limiting raises concerns with regards to the mass collection of user data.”

Gravatar Minimizes User Data Collection

Gravatar tweeted public statements that minimized the impact of the user information collection.

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The last tweet in the series from Gravatar encouraged readers to learn how Gravatar works:

“If you want to learn more about how Gravatar works or adjust the data shared on your profile, please visit http://Gravatar.com.”

Ironically, Gravatar linked to an insecure protocol of the URL, using HTTP. Upon reaching the URL there was no redirect on Gravatar to a secure (HTTPS) version of the web page, which only undermined their efforts to project a sense of security.

Twitter Users React

One Twitter user objected to the use of the word “breach” because the information was publicly available.

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The person behind the HaveIBeenPwned website responded:

Why Gravatar Scraping Event Is Important

Troy Hunt, the person behind the HaveIBeenPwned website explained in a series of tweets why the Gravatar scraping event is important.

Troy asserted that the data that users entrusted to Gravatar was used in a way that was unexpected.

Gravatar User Trust Eroded

Users Want Control Over Their Gravatar Information

Troy asserted that users want to be aware of how their information is used and accessed.

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Were Gravatar Users Pwned?

An argument could be made that a Gravatar account can be public but not easily harvested as Step One of a hacking event by people with malicious intent.

Gravatar asserted that after the enumeration attack vulnerability was disclosed that they took steps to close it to prevent further downloading of user information.

So on the one hand Gravatar took steps to prevent those with malicious intent from harvesting user information. But on the other hand they said reports of Gravatar being hacked is misinformation.

But the fact is that HaveIBeenPwned did not call it a hacking event, they called it a breach.

An argument could be made that Gravatar’s use of the MD5 hash for storing email data was insecure and the moment hackers cracked the insecure encryption, the abnormal scraping of “public information” became a breach.

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Many Gravatar users aren’t particularly happy and are looking for answers:

 





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