Child database leak caused by error not hacking

Techncial flaw led to leak of 1,300 children by Gabbitas, claims source

Last week's leak of a database of schoolchildren by educational firm Gabbitas was caused by a straightforward technical error and not an external attack as apparently claimed at the time, the source of a story run by The Sunday Telegraph has told Computerworld UK.

According to the source - who wishes to remain anonymous - he stumbled on an exposed database containing the records of 1,367 children on 17 August while using Google to locate the email address of an acquaintance.

In the event, the search turned up the desired contact inside a CSV (comma separated value) file dump from an SQL database. Uploaded sometime between 15 March and 16 June 2012, this appeared to have been accidentally left exposed on the emetis.com independent schools guide website run by Gabbitas (currently down) during a revamp.

A cache of the directory structure can be seen here. The issue was reported to The Sunday Telegraph, which ran the story on 19 August.

Although the number of records involved was relatively small by data breach standards, the fact that they were of children and contained highly sensitive notes on personality traits and weaknesses served to amplify the seriousness of the breach.

The Sunday Telegraph reported that Gabbitas had said it believed the leak had happened as a result of an unspecified "cyberattack".

According to the newspaper, Gabbitas had said it was "deeply concerned" about the attack and had asked police to investigate. "We apologise unreservedly to any individuals who may be affected," a spokesman was reported to told the newspaper.

This version of events is clearly at odds with the claims of the source who uncovered the matter. In his view, the lapse was a technical mistake by the site admin and unconnected to hacking.

He believed the "cyberattack" mentioned by Gabbitas could simply be the point at which he accessed the exposed data for a second time during his research.

ComputerworldUK has repeatedly contacted Gabbitas directly, as well as through its parent firm Prospects, but received no response to our queries. Gabbitas would not confirm the claim that it had blamed the breach on a cyberattack, nor would it offer further comment on events surrounding the leak.

That remains a contention of the story by The Sunday Telegraph, but the discrepancy is unsettling. Was Gabbitas really hacked or was the data exposed by error?

The source said he had sent his evidence to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which has previously said it will investigate.

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