The Lesson Never Learned: Blank Server Passwords At TJX

Much has been made recently of TJX firing a store employee who posted public comments about weak security procedures that still exist at the retail chain that was the site of the worst data breach in credit-card history.

The employee has been dubbed a whistleblower, and it's been suggested that TJX was wrong to have terminated the guy. In this case, I have to stand up for TJX: They were completely within their rights to terminate this employee. As for the charges themselves, those are dramatically more troubling.

It would be nice to think that once burned, TJX would at least take good security precautions going forward. The frightening part of the leaked information is that there was nothing to suggest the existence of some subtle hole that an experienced professional hacker could tunnel through. No, these leaked details described the exact type of obvious basic security measures that cost virtually nothing to enforce and are absolutely real security threats.

Let's get specific as to the charges of former employee Nick Benson, according to this nice piece of reporting from The Register in the U.K.:
  • Employees were told to log into company servers with blank passwords. That was in effect "as recently as May 8."
  • A store server that was running in administrator mode.
  • "My store manager even posted the password and username on a post-it note. I told her not to do that."

    Of greater concern are the details surrounding the incidents. This wasn't a case of the multibillion chain never having changed the server passwords. That would be remarkably bad, but it could—charitably—be chalked up as careless. But Benson's details paint a much more frightening—and deliberate—portrait.

    The ex-employee said that when he first started working for TJX, his password was the same as his username. That's bad security, but it's not as bad as a blank password. But in January 2007, when TJX announced the data breach to the world, TJX had all employees using much stronger passwords.

    This year, apparently, the passwords were all changed to blank. That's right. They had already implemented fairly strong passwords and they initiated an action to set them to blank. This wasn't laziness. Someone took the time to weaken security. That's worthy of note.

    Benson posted that the stores had started to install Cisco firewalls and that they were apparently being installed by Fujitsu. (He speculated that the installation of the firewalls might have lulled someone into thinking that strong passwords were no longer necessary.)

    His post then criticized an unidentified Fujitsu technician. "The technician from Fujitsu that came to one store did not know what he was doing. He said it was his first time setting up one of those firewalls and then said he didn't know what he was doing and he thinks he set it up right," Benson wrote. "He even ended up asking a cashier about the computer's setup, as if he/she would know. Now judging from this, does this sound like progress in securing a company's IT infrastructure?"

    The decision of Benson—who used the name CrYpTiC_MauleR to post—to go public with the information was only after, according to his version, he had exhausted internal mechanisms, including having talked with "a district loss prevention manager named Allen in late 2006," a move which he said produced no action.

    A comment to one of his posts defended his act of going public, correctly pointing out that it's a time-honored IT tradition. Reporter finds hole and reports it and gets ignored. He persists and is either ignored or threatened with termination. He then anonymously posts the problem and it magically gets quickly fixed.

    It's not clear if the security problems in this case got fixed. But once the comments were posted, TJX quickly took action—tracking down the IP address the comments were posted from and then identifying Benson. He was immediately fired.

    One could ask whether it wouldn't have been easier to fix the problems when the matter was initially flagged. Would the time and effort spent tracking down the loose-lipped employee have been better spent fixing the password problems?

    As we've noted before, throughout their data breach legal battles, TJX has consistently been far more concerned about keeping their breach details secret than in trying to fix the security in the first place. That's why they jump to terminate an employee who discusses such matters but ignore the employee when security is the issue.

    When a retailer becomes infamous for the world's worst data breach in credit-card history—where more than 100 million cards were impacted—it's clear that lessons are learned the hard way. Sometimes, though, such lessons are never learned at all.