Sensitive US government and military travel details left exposed online

Significant amounts of sensitive data about employees of the US government military personnel data could now be in the public domain following its exposure in a data leak.

Israeli security researchers Noam Rotem and Ran Locar discovered 179 GB of data on an unsecured AWS server, run – they believe – by a travel services firm.

The database is thought to belong to AutoClerk, a reservation management system recently acquired by Best Western Hotels and Resorts Group, and revealed the sensitive personal details of thousands of people, including their hotel and travel reservations.

Data exposed by the unsecured web bucket, which could be accessed by anybody without the use of any passwords, included:

  • Full name
  • Date of birth
  • Home address
  • Phone number
  • Dates & costs of travel
  • Partial credit card details

In some cases the data even included logs for US Army generals travelling to such destinations as Moscow and Tel Aviv, as well as even individuals’ hotel room numbers and check-in times.

The researchers also note that they were able to view “many unencrypted login credentials to access accounts on additional systems external to the database”, opening the possibility that other hotel and accommodation reservation systems could also be at risk of compromise by hackers.

In its blog post announcing the researchers’ discovery, VPNMentor described the incident as “a massive breach of security for the government agencies and departments impacted.”

The researchers explained how it was able to access the sensitive data:

“Whoever owns the database in question uses an Elasticsearch database, which is ordinarily not designed for URL use. However, we were able to access it via browser and manipulate the URL search criteria into exposing schemata from a single index at any time.”

Uncertain as to who the database belonged to, although suspecting it was AutoClerk, the researchers first contacted the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) without success. Ultimately it was only after reaching out to the US embassy in Tel Aviv, and making contact with the Department of Defense at the Pentagon that the unsecured database was finally closed – weeks after its initial discovery.

What’s particularly frustrating is that data leaks like this are so easy to prevent. A series of very public data breaches from unsecured web servers – some even previously from defence contractors – could have been avoided if the database owners had configured their security properly.

About the author


Graham Cluley is an award-winning security blogger, researcher and public speaker. He has been working in the computer security industry since the early 1990s, having been employed by companies such as Sophos, McAfee and Dr Solomon's. He has given talks about computer security for some of the world's largest companies, worked with law enforcement agencies on investigations into hacking groups, and regularly appears on TV and radio explaining computer security threats.

Graham Cluley was inducted into the InfoSecurity Europe Hall of Fame in 2011, and was given an honorary mention in the "10 Greatest Britons in IT History" for his contribution as a leading authority in internet security.