NordVPN Confirms Hack After Data Centre Mistake

Panama-based VPN provider confirms it was hacked after Finnish data centre provider left server unsecured

NordVPN has confirmed that it has been hacked, but it insisted that it was an “isolated case” and that no usernames or passwords were impacted.

The Panama-based VPN provider confirmed the hack in a blog post, and said the breach was because of a mistake by a data centre provider based in Finland.

The unnamed Finnish data centre provider had apparently left an insecure remote management system installed on server, that NordVPN was unaware of. The attacker was able to exploit this unsecured route.

Isolated incident

“A few months ago, we became aware that, on March 2018, one of the data centres in Finland we had been renting our servers from was accessed with no authorisation,” explained the security firm in the blog post.

“The attacker gained access to the server by exploiting an insecure remote management system left by the data centre provider,” it added. “We were unaware that such a system existed. The server itself did not contain any user activity logs; none of our applications send user-created credentials for authentication, so usernames and passwords couldn’t have been intercepted either.”

NordVPN also said said that the exact configuration file found on the internet by security researchers ceased to exist on March 5, 2018.

“This was an isolated case, and no other data centre providers we use have been affected,” insisted the firm.

It said that once it found out about the incident, it had immediately launched a thorough internal audit to check its entire infrastructure.

“We double-checked that no other server could possibly be exploited this way and started creating a process to move all of our servers to RAM, which is to be completed next year,” said NordVPN. “We have also raised the bar for all data centres we work with. Now, before signing up with them, we make sure that they meet even higher standards.”

NordVPN said that once it had learned about the vulnerability the data centre had, it immediately terminated the contract with the server provider and shredded all the servers it had been renting from them.

“We did not disclose the exploit immediately because we had to make sure that none of our infrastructure could be prone to similar issues,” said NordVPN. “This couldn’t be done quickly due to the huge number of servers and the complexity of our infrastructure.”

NordVPN insisted that no user credentials had been intercepted.

“Even though only 1 of more than 3000 servers we had at the time was affected, we are not trying to undermine the severity of the issue,” it said. “We failed by contracting an unreliable server provider and should have done better to ensure the security of our customers. We are taking all the necessary means to enhance our security.”

VPN use

Security experts were quick to point out that the breach should not put people off from using a VPN product.

“No doubt privacy purists will jump on this and try to call Nord and other services out, but using a VPN is still hugely advised to protect online anonymity,” said Jake Moore, cybersecurity specialist at ESET. “This is especially true in hostile states, where some apps or websites are banned.”

“VPNs are also extremely useful when using public Wi-Fi, and this news shouldn’t put you off,” said Moore. “It will still be more secure to use a VPN than not using one at all. Ideally, you should avoid using public Wi-Fi at all, where possible. However, this is not always feasible and as some places, “not spots”, do not have any data coverage. In these cases, a VPN provider of choice is necessary.”

“In recent years there have been similar stories of password managers being “breached” but similarly, using a password manager is still safer than using the same password everywhere online,” he concluded.

Earlier this month both the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the GQHC agency in the United Kingdom issued warnings about “multiple vulnerabilities in Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications.

The NSA and the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) warned that advanced persistent threat (APT) actors are actively exploiting “known vulnerabilities affecting Virtual Private Network (VPN) products from vendors Pulse Secure, Fortinet and Palo Alto.”

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