San Francisco DA discloses city's network passwords

Close to 150 usernames and passwords were made public in a case filing

In its bid to protect the city from one computer security risk, the San Francisco District Attorney's Office may very well have created another.

The office of San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris has made public close to 150 usernames and passwords used by various departments to connect to the city's VPN. The passwords were filed this week as Exhibit A in a court document arguing against a reduction in $5 million bail in the case of Terry Childs, who is accused of holding the city's network hostage by refusing to give up administrative networking passwords. Childs was arrested July 12 on charges of computer tampering and is being held in the county jail.

Though they placed the passwords in the public record, city prosecutors do seem to think that they are sensitive.

The passwords, discovered on Childs' computer, pose an "imminent threat" to the city's computer network, according to the court filing. Childs could use the names and passwords to "impersonate any of the legitimate users in the City by using their password to gain access to the system," the motion against the bail reduction states.

Although the DA's office did not say what the passwords were used for, a source familiar with the situation said that they are for logging into the city's VPN, and that this type of information is something that a network administrator like Childs would be expected to have.

Posting these passwords in public creates a security risk, although the passwords are not enough to give a criminal access to the city's VPN. The passwords are so-called phase one passwords, and must be combined with a second password to access the network, the source said.

The passwords are used by city workers accessing the network from home computers or via laptops while they are outside of city offices. The passwords are for many city departments, including the police department, the mayor's office, and the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS), where Childs worked.

The city should be "moving very aggressively" to change the passwords as quickly as it can, said Robert Grapes, chief technologist of data center solutions at Cloakware, a vendor of password management software.

Erica Derryck, a spokeswoman for the DA's office, declined to comment on the matter. The mayor's office, which supervises DTIS, did not return messages seeking comment for this story.

To change the passwords, the city will have to reconfigure the VPN software running on every PC that connects remotely, which it has not yet done, the source said.

Some of the passwords would benefit from a change because they are identical to the VPN log-in name or are extremely easy to guess.

Childs' case has been a top news story in San Francisco for nearly two weeks now.

For nine days after his July 12 arrest, he refused to hand over administrative passwords to the five central networking devices on the city's FiberWAN, which carries about 60% of the city government's networking traffic. Childs, an engineer principal at DTIS who used the log-in Maggot617, had been engaged in a months-long dispute with management, and held onto the passwords even after he was jailed.

On Monday, he gave them over to the mayor after a secret jailhouse meeting between the two. Childs' lawyer argues that because of departmental incompetence, the mayor was the only person qualified to be handed the keys to the network.

Given the criminal charges against Childs, the city should already be resetting these passwords, said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer at BT. "Fix it now," he said. "Go in there, expire everybody's passwords and make them all log in again. Do it right now. This isn't hard."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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