Instant Insider: Harvard Hacker Breaches Network Security By Walking Right In

This month brought another reminder that retailers have to defend their networks not just against thieves hacking in—but also against thieves walking in. A Harvard University activist (and fellow at Harvard's Center for Ethics, for what that's worth) named Aaron Swartz was indicted this month after he walked into an unguarded basement on the MIT campus, connected a laptop to a switch in a network wiring closet and spent the next two months illegally downloading millions of documents from a university archive.

If that doesn't sound like a template for your worst security nightmares, just substitute "shopping mall" for campus and "payment-card transactions" for documents. True insiders may be the source of most security problems—such as a fired Gucci network administrator—but when network wiring is unprotected, any thief can become an instant insider. What makes Swartz's success even more chilling is that MIT's network security team had spotted and blocked his access a month before. But once Swartz connected directly to the switch, because he was attacking from an unexpected direction, network security didn't notice for months.

According to the grand jury indictment, Swartz wanted to liberate millions of documents in an MIT archive of academic journals called JSTOR. He spent two weeks in late September and early October 2010 downloading about two million documents at high speed as a falsely registered guest of the system. That brought the servers to a standstill for other users and began a cat-and-mouse game in which network security used a series of increasingly broad measures to block Swartz from the network while he used tricks to change his IP address and spoof the MAC address of his laptop.

But once Swartz discovered the basement wiring closet in November 2010, the stalking ended. According to the indictment, "This time around, Swartz circumvented MIT's guest registration process altogether when he connected to MIT's computer network. By this point, Swartz was familiar with the IP addresses available to be assigned at the switch in the restricted network interface closet in the basement of MIT's Building 16. Swartz simply hard-wired into the network and assigned himself two IP addresses. He hid the Acer laptop and a succession of external storage drives under a box in the closet, so that they would not be obvious to anyone who might enter the closet."

For the next two months, Swartz returned repeatedly to swap out hard drives as the laptop steadily downloaded another two million articles, this time undetected. He might never have been spotted except that he got nervous when the time came to remove the laptop. "On January 6, 2011, Swartz returned to the wiring closet to remove his computer equipment," the indictment said.

"This time he attempted to evade identification at the entrance to the restricted area. As Swartz entered the wiring closet, he held his bicycle helmet like a mask to shield his face, looking through ventilation holes in the helmet. Swartz then removed his computer equipment from the closet, put it in his backpack and left, again masking his face with the bicycle helmet before peering through a crack in the double doors and cautiously stepping out." That afternoon, MIT police spotted and caught him.

Of course, not all retailers depend entirely on technology for securing networks. And not all stores have unguarded basements where a stranger can wander in unnoticed. But the reality is that store and mall security are mainly focused on thieves who walk off with merchandise or individuals who are likely to be disorderly. A well-spoken individual found wandering a back room who says he's just looking for a restroom? He'll probably only get an escort back to the public area.

And if he returns to hack into the wiring closet he spotted, you'll probably never know until it's too late.