Yale warns 43,000 about 10-month-long data breach

FTP server on which data was stored became searchable by Google in September

Yale University has notified about 43,000 faculty, staff, students and alumni that their names and Social Security numbers were publicly available via Google search for about 10 months.

All of the victims were affiliated with Yale in 1999, and are being offered identity theft insurance and free credit monitoring services for two years, the university said in a statement last week.

The breach resulted when a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) server on which the data was stored became searchable via Google as the result of a change the search engine giant made last September, the Yale Daily News reported

The online publication reported that Yale IT Services Director Len Peters said the FTP server holding the compromised information was used mainly for open-source materials.

In September 2010, Google made a change that allowed its search engine to index and find FTP servers. But university IT officials were unaware of the change, Peters told the Daily News.

When Yale discovered the breach in June, it immediately took the server offline, deleted the sensitive data and evaluated whether there were any other files containing similar data on the FTP server, Peters said.

In a statement to Computerworld, Yale officials make no mention of how the data was compromised. BUt the school said it has "secured" the file and Google has confirmed that its search engine no longer stores any information from it.

The statement doesn't say how Yale discovered the breach, nor whether any of the data available via Google was accessed by anyone. Peters told the campus publication that the file and the directory in which the exposed information was stored had innocuous sounding names that are unlikely to have tipped off others about the contents.

This is the second publicly known breach in the last two months involving the inadvertent exposure of sensitive data on the Web. In June, Southern California Medical-Legal Consultants Inc. (SCMLC) said that the names and Social Security numbers of about 300,000 people who had filed for California workers compensation had been potentially compromised. That breach resulted when an internal server on which the data was stored became exposed to web searches.

SCMLC learned of the breach from security firm Identity Finder. In a statement, Identity Finder said that its security researchers had uncovered 3,875 uncompressed files containing several gigabytes of personal data on an SCMLC server that was exposed to the Web.

"The files were neither encrypted nor password-protected and some were cached by at least one major search engine," Identity Finder said. The company subsequently worked with Google to clear search engine caches, a spokesman for the company said. As of today, Google caches are clear of sensitive personal information from SCLMC, the spokesman said.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

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Jaikumar Vijayan

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