Although it is not exactly clear what can be accessed from the apparent holes, the ex-hacker discovered he was able to access to the FBI's Web site manager directory, showing a full directory listing of the FBI Web server.
The specialist, once a hacker and now a member of HIT2000 Information Security, discovered a Web page that offers potential access to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Web site: http://www.ftc.gov/. It was later learned that a similar page exists on the FBI Web site (http://www.fbi.gov/).
Security experts suggest any hint of a vulnerability can make the sites a target for hackers.
"The less you give out to the public the better," said Richard Smith, an Internet security consultant. "You really don't want these pages to be visible outside the organisation. You really want to hide this stuff so people won't have any idea of where to poke. It should be obscured. It should be internal."
Both the FTC and FBI run Netscape's Enterprise Server software. The Web sites offer access to the server's Publisher program, which when enabled gives authorised users access to make alterations to Web sites. According to the European specialist, who asked not to be identified, Publisher allows anyone on the Web to look at certain internal logs and directories on the server, even when it is disabled.
"Netscape Publisher is meant for Web site administrators to manage the site," he said in an e-mail interview. "Login name is 'admin' and typically there is no administrator password. You can use it to browse through the site and might stumble upon log files. These files sometimes contain password data or, in the case of an e-commerce site, transaction records," he said.
"Besides that many database files and backups are usually saved in a directory on the server that is normally not accessible via the Web," the ex-hacker said. "These databases can contain privacy sensitive information that is now available for download through Publisher."
Netscape did not respond to inquiries.
A senior computer specialist at the FTC, however, said there was no vulnerability and nothing was enabled on the Netscape Publisher page.
"It is disabled and has never been enabled," said Mike Frank at the FTC. "It is part of Netscape Enterprise Server." He added that the FTC runs version 3.62.
Nothing is really available, except access to the online manual for Publisher, Frank said.
"It just runs into a hole for me and tries to start a Java tool editor," he said.
The Publisher tool has never been enabled and FTC network administrators never saw the page as a threat to security, Frank said. The pages were, however, removed after journalists contacted the FTC.
FBI.gov may be more vulnerable, though, according to the European specialist. The site has an additional vulnerability that is not that old and most people are unaware of it, the ex-hacker said. This would allow a hacker to get full access to the FBI Web server.
"It is specific to the combination of Netscape Enterprise Server 3.5.1 on [Sun Microsystems's] Solaris," the ex-hacker said. "I could write an exploit within 10 minutes to get full access." The vulnerability is known to experts as a password buffer overrun.
FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman said the agency had no comment.
Regardless of whether one can actually gain access to the sites, a security expert with Global Integrity suggests that even giving hackers the perception of an opening is not wise.
"Even if they can't do it [alter the site], it is inviting hacker traffic to the site, especially to the FBI," said Mark Rasch, vice president of cyber law for Global Integrity.