AT&T sent an e-mail to iPad owners Sunday explaining a data breach that occurred on its site and laying much of the blame with the group that discovered the hole.
The e-mail, which was signed by AT&T Chief Privacy Officer Dorothy Attwood, blamed "self-described hackers" for uncovering a hole in the company's Web site that allowed for the exposure of 114,000 e-mail addresses belonging to iPad owners, according to a copy posted on Boy Genius Report. Among the iPad users who appeared to have been affected were White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, journalist Diane Sawyer, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, movie producer Harvey Weinstein, and New York Times CEO Janet Robinson.
In the e-mail explaining how the breach occurred, Attwood apologized for the breach and said "unauthorized computer 'hackers' maliciously exploited a function designed to make your iPad log-in process faster by pre-populating an AT&T authentication page with the email address you used to register your iPad for 3G service":
The self-described hackers wrote software code to randomly generate numbers that mimicked serial numbers of the AT&T SIM card for iPad--called the integrated circuit card identification (ICC-ID)--and repeatedly queried an AT&T web address. When a number generated by the hackers matched an actual ICC-ID, the authentication page log-in screen was returned to the hackers with the email address associated with the ICC-ID already populated on the log-in screen.
The hackers deliberately went to great efforts with a random program to extract possible ICC-IDs and capture customer email addresses. They then put together a list of these emails and distributed it for their own publicity.
As soon as we became aware of this situation, we took swift action to prevent any further unauthorized exposure of customer email addresses. Within hours, AT&T disabled the mechanism that automatically populated the email address. Now, the authentication page log-in screen requires the user to enter both their email address and their password.
A group called Goatse Security uncovered the hole by sending HTTP requests to AT&T's site that included SIM card serial numbers for iPads. Because the serial numbers, called ICC-IDs (integrated circuit card identifiers), are generated sequentially, the researchers were able to guess thousands of them and then ran a program to extract the data by going down the list. A spokesman for AT&T said the company turned off the feature that provided e-mail addresses on Tuesday, one day after learning of the problem from someone not affiliated with the hacker group.
The FBI announced on Thursday it had launched an investigation into the situation after learning that numerous U.S. government officials were among the many executives and luminaries that had their e-mail addresses exposed.
A key member of Goatse defended his group's activities, saying he and his colleagues simply acted in the public's best interest.
"We did not give details of the attack or the data to anyone until we verified that the hole was closed on their Web site on Tuesday," Escher Auernheimer told CNET's Elinor Mills on Thursday.