A flaw in a government contracting database might have allowed vendors or federal workers to steal other vendors' financial information and trade secrets.
Late Friday, the General Services Administration said in a statement that GSA officials found "a security vulnerability" in a registration system "which could allow some existing users in the system to view certain registration information of other users." The potential exposure was first reported by Federal News Radio on Friday.
The database, called the System for Award Management, or SAM, currently catalogs, among other things, central contractor registration records that include personal and banking information, company financials, and codes that grant access to a past performance rating system.
GSA Spokeswoman Jackeline Stewart told Nextgov "all registered SAM users were made aware of the situation." She would not disclose the number of system users but an estimated 600,000 companies currently are registered in the database. The security loophole “was reported to GSA” on March 8 and fixed on March 10, agency officials stated.
This sort of vulnerability can be caused by a malicious or inadvertent action, according to software security researchers. Stewart would not comment on whether the opening was the result of intentional "SQL injection," or something accidental such as a password management glitch or someone forgetting to apply a software update.
"It was discovered that by following a unique series of steps an entity record manager could potentially see the sensitive information of another entity," agency officials stated.
The presence of an SQL injection bug would mean someone had deliberately taken advantage of a coding error to execute unauthorized commands and breach the system.
"I am not sure if we have enough information yet about what the flaw was," said Kevin Johnson, chief executive officer of consulting firm Secure Ideas, but "SQL injection could absolutely be the way they were exploited."
Johnson, who is paid to spot security vulnerabilities, said, "I have often used that type of flaw to retrieve exactly this type of data. And it is commonly found -- sadly -- on government Web applications."
He said that while a person must perform an SQL injection, the attacker might not necessarily be a bad actor, but rather a security tester, like himself, working for GSA.
A number of other issues also could have caused this kind of outage, Johnson added.
GSA applied a software patch to block the exposure and the agency has no evidence that any company's data was improperly used, altered or lost, government officials stated. A full review is ongoing, the officials added.
If there was an intruder, Johnson said the hacker likely could have been seeking the proprietary information of a competitor. Identity fraud was another possibility, he said.
An FAQ posted on the GSA website Friday night states, “Registrants using their Social Security numbers instead of a [Taxpayer Identification Number] for purposes of doing business with the federal government may be at greater risk for potential identity theft." Free credit monitoring services will be made available to those registrants, agency officials added.
The GSA notice states, "The security of this information is a top priority for this agency and we will continue to ensure the system remains secure."
Johnson's company, which is registered on the SAM database, was notified of the incident by email shortly after 2:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. He said the delay likely is due to the high volume of messages being sent.