The Australian Privacy Commissioner has opened an investigation into security measures in place on Fairfax's websites after SC Magazine revealed two of its microsites had been compromised.
Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim said the office would also investigate whether the websites complied with the Privacy Act.
The media giant confirmed yesterday two of its microsites - Herald Education and Young Writer - were hacked this month. But it claimed up to 10,000 unencrypted credit card details compromised in the same attack were not Fairfax customers.
SC Magazine informed Fairfax of the vulnerabilities as part of responsible information security disclosure. The sites have been taken offline in response.
Fairfax said it was working with an undisclosed third party outsourcer to investigate the incident.
While it could not confirm technical details, a spokesperson for Fairfax said the websites were hosted in a shared service environment.
"This relates to a small number of our sites that are hosted by external providers and there is no evidence that our major sites – smh.com.au, theage.com.au and our classified and transaction businesses - have been compromised," Fairfax company secretary Gail Hambly said in a statement to SC Magazine.
"Fairfax values the integrity of its customer information highly and we are investigating this matter and will be communicating to our customers and relevant authorities about any potential security breach."
But the attack attracted the attention of the Privacy Commissioner's office later during the day.
"I have opened an investigation into allegations that the Herald Education website may have been subject to hacking, compromising the personal information of some subscribers," Pilgrim said.
"My investigation will be looking at the site's compliance with the Privacy Act and in particular whether appropriate data security practices were in place at the time of the alleged hack.
Microsites like Young Writer and Herald Education are often easy pickings for hackers if they do not receive the same level of security maintenance as the parent web sites. An outdated microsite run by Sony was hacked during the string of attacks against the company last year.
Questions over credit card data
Hackers involved in the attack on the sites claimed that administrator details stored in the Young Writer web site provided access to the Sydney Morning Herald domain from where root access was gained.
SC Magazine was shown a list of hundreds of internal database structures as proof of this attack, including Customer Relationship Management and Fairfax Enterprise databases.
The hackers claim to have accessed full credit card data including CCV numbers along with related information on names, addresses and date of birth using this root access. The hackers had assumed these belonged to subscribers of Fairfax publications including the Sydney Morning Herald.
SC Magazine has witnessed a link hackers claimed would download the credit card database when run in a SQL dump application and forwarded this to Fairfax to assist its investigation.
SC Magazine was unable to independently verify whether this credit card data belonged to Fairfax customers.
Fairfax insisted the microsites are run and managed completely separately to its core web sites and transactional engine. It confirmed that third parties do hold the credit card and subscriber information of its customers, but that this data was held in an encrypted format.
A veteran of the credit card industry who requested anonymity said the outsourcer of the credit card information may be liable for breaching the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) if CCV data was stored within databases, as the hackers claimed.
But it would not be liable under the standard for storing credit card information on systems provided the data was kept in a secured environment.
The hackers told SC Magazine they did not plan to use or publicly disclose the credit card and subscriber information. They claimed to have breached the network to highlight information security vulnerabilities.
The hackers claimed that Fairfax's internal network was flat and presented few security obstacles which would prevent attackers from accessing multiple areas.
Flat, or soft, networks are common among larger organisations and often require an overhaul to improve.
Hardened networks are cut up into zones separated by firewalls and intrusion detection systems that minimised the risk of one breached system compromising others. The most sensitive systems could be disconnected from networks, or air-gapped.