If you changed the number on your bill you'd get a different person's bill

It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out this was a bad idea.  Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa, had an e-statement website that offered helpful information such as your water and electric bills, plus information on the property.  However, there was just one issue -- once you were logged in the system you could change the property number, which means that you could access anyone's account.

I. Tech Executive Finds Huge Flaw, is Met With Silence

The flaw allowed you to snoop on others' water and electric bills, plus city property valuations and arrears (unpaid debt).

Gerd Naschenweng, chief technology officer of Bid or Buy -- one of South Africa's largest online auction/marketplace site -- discovered this astounding oversight one day when trying to help his friend find his account.  He recalls:

I was astounded to see I could access anyone’s account. I had a bit of fun going through the accounts and I am shocked to see what large amounts people owe the city.  This problem is poor implementation of their website, which disregards any best practices for web and data security. In the IT industry this is a rookie mistake.
The service provider that implemented this functionality will need to implement a solution so that only authenticated users can view their own data.  [Otherwise] people could even apply for credits and refunds owing to ratepayers.

City of Johannesburg
Johannesburg, South Africa [Image Source: Urban Africa]

The IT specialist first tried to contact the city to warn them of the issue.  He called a troubleshooting hotline (the City of Johannesburg (COJ) Call Center), but had his concerns quickly dismissed.  He recalls, "The agent just did not comprehend the nature and the urgency of the matter and when I asked to speak to a supervisor, I was cut off."

He then emailed the city with his name, a description of the problem, and his contact details.  He waited, but received no response.

Frustrated, Mr. Nascheweng chose to disclose the vulnerability to The Star (a local paper), by sending the property records of several large businesses.  The records showed potential corruption, revealing that many large businesses had a large amount of unpaid debt (arrears), but were not being shut down.  Among these businesses was SA National Roads Agency Ltd (Sanral), who owed R55,000 (~$5,380 USD).

II. Finally a Response

The publication provoked action. On late Tuesday afternoon, the page was taken down.  As customer frustration mounted Wednesday, the city first posted a short statement commenting that it was "experiencing technical difficulties", then offered a longer comment via city spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane who announced:

We are aware of the security breach and our technical team has brought the services down to prevent further unauthorised access to consumer accounts.  The city (is) investigating the root cause and a permanent solution will be applied. We do apologise for any inconvenience caused

City of Johannesburg
[Image Source:]

The public relations officer of the nation's centrist Democratic Alliance (DA) party, Linus Muller, comments both on the flaw itself and the corruption allegations:

Any incident that exposes ratepayers’ information that could be used to commit fraud is a cause for concern.  Fraudsters had access to close on a million clients’ account details - this could be used, in conjunction with fake IDs, in any credit purchase transaction as proof of residence. It is regrettable that the so-called caring and world-class city chose to ignore a whistle-blower’s attempts to make them aware of the problem.

The city’s policy is to disconnect electricity to clients with arrears of R1 500 or more for 30 days or longer. To my knowledge, this has not happened. I am also not aware if Sanral is another ‘high- profile’ victim of the billing crisis, and need either to pay their dues, or set the record straight.

A statement on the city website claimed that while no user records were compromised the system had been "hacked" and stated menacingly:

The City would like to reassure its customers that no information can be manipulated on the City’s Billing System.  The City is undertaking legal proceedings against those who viewed and posted information unlawfully.

Many interpreted this to mean that the city was going after Mr. Nascheweng, the executive who disclosed the flaw.  However, he says that no one has contacted him yet and that if he's being charged no one has told him.  He explains, "I believe any criminal charges will have no merit or grounds, because the information is publicly available. Anyone out there would have had access to that information. Just because I was the person to come across it and tried to inform the COJ of the issue, they want to file criminal charges."

III.  City Threatens Unnamed "Hacker(s)" With Criminal Charges

A second statement, however, raises questions of whether it is the CTO who is being investigated.  The COJ writes:

At no stage has any of our residents’ personal information been compromised (banking details or ID numbers); this has been a priority for the City of Joburg to ensure safety and privacy of customer information.  The information that was accessed was not from the transactional engine of the billing system of the City of Joburg and the perpetrators were not able to transact on any of the information they have accessed. 

The City is busy with its own forensic investigation with its IT partner to assist the police with the criminal case that will be opened at as a result of this incident. Any such breach in future, aimed at stealing personal or municipal information, will also be regarded as a criminal matter. 

Note that the language ("perpetrators", "they have accessed") seems to be plural indicating multiple parties.  Unless that means the city is also planning to charge the newspaper, it may mean Mr. Nascheweng is off the hook.

COJ claims "hackers" compromised its site. [Image Source:]

The Managing Director of local security firm Wolfpack, Craig Rosewarne [PDF], says that charging the man who discovered the flaw -- or anyone else for that matter -- would be bad form.  He comments to local tech site IT Web Security:
It seems they [COJ] are now trying to position this as someone hacking into their system, but this is not the case.  They are probably referring to the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act… It would be in very poor taste if the City of Joburg is to sue this person [who revealed the flaw], because this is not hacking. This is just one of many examples of a Web site not being designed with security in mind.

So far the city has announced who it is or isn't charging with electronic crimes.

IV. Another City Has Near Identical Flaw

Meanwhile it has been reported by Htxt.Africa that neighboring Municipality of Ekurhuleni has a nearly identical bug in their online billing system, and to boot users can create accounts on that system with false credentials (it was a forums user -- JoseP -- who first discovered that bug).  

City Ekurhuleni
Another neighboring city was found to have the same fatal flaw. [Image Source:]

Htxt.Africa blasted the COJ's legal threats and labelling of the discover(s) a "hacker".  It contacted University of PretoriaSylvia Papadopoulos who said the people of COJ may be eligible for a class action lawsuit, remarking:

The possible ramifications of such a breach in data security are enormous,” Papadopoulos explains, “There are two or three possible avenues open for parties affected by the data breach.

The best option is that in South African law the right to privacy is protected in terms of both our common law and section 14 of the Constitution and it is recognized as an independent valuable personality right.  Therefore any action in this sphere of the law is a synthesized action based on both the common law and constitutional law principles.

The recognition of a right to privacy is also extended to commercial entities. In principle a party (class action for damages) would have to prove: That there was a disclosure of private information ie. a breach of privacy, that the breach was unlawful/wrong/unjustifiable and due to negligence on the part of the party you want to hold liable, that their actions/inaction caused damage and finally you have to prove the amount of damage suffered.

The only possible issue here is showing that actual damage occurred.

Perhaps that's why the city is taking such a defensive tone.

Sources: City of Johannesburg [1], [2], ITWeb, Htxt.Africa

"People Don't Respect Confidentiality in This Industry" -- Sony Computer Entertainment of America President and CEO Jack Tretton

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