Article by Robert Scammell – Verdict
British travel company Teletext Holidays has suffered a data breach in which some 212,000 customer call audio files were left unprotected on an online server for three years, exposing customer names, email addresses, home addresses, phone numbers and dates of birth.
Truly Travels, trading as Teletext Holidays, formed out of the once-popular television information text service. It now advertises package holidays online and completes bookings over the phone.
Verdict discovered the files – which have since been removed – on an unsecured Amazon Web Services server. In total, there were 532,000 files. Of those, 212,000 were audio files from Teletext customers calling its India-based call centre.
The calls took place between the 10 April 2016 and 10 August 2016. They range from a few minutes to up to an hour and, based on accents, appear to involve UK customers. In recordings heard by Verdict, customers can be heard booking holidays, amending bookings, enquiring about trips and making complaints.
Details about each holiday, including flight time, location and cost, can also be heard. In conversations where a holiday is booked, customers also tell the Teletext Holidays employees partial card details. This includes the type of card, name on card and expiry date.
Instead of saying their card number and three-digit security number, customers type them into the keypad – protecting the most serious financial information. In a very small number of calls, Verdict heard customers begin to say their card number out loud, before the call centre operator interjects.
The names and dates of birth of accompanying passengers, such as partners and children, can also be heard.
Teletext Holidays removed all 532,000 files almost immediately after Verdict notified the company. In a statement, a Truly Travel spokesperson (trading as Teletext Holidays) spokesperson said:
“We are in the process of reporting the matter to the ICO, and we will fully comply with our wider legal obligations.
“The company is taking all appropriate steps to ensure that this situation does not occur in the future.”
Customers recorded while on hold
In some calls heard by Verdict, Teletext customers continued to be recorded while put on hold, with Verdict hearing couples talking privately among themselves. In one, a mother can be heard trying to calm her crying children while she waits.
In another, a couple is placed on hold for several minutes, during which they discuss whether to go ahead with the booking, before whispering “I’m going to hang up”.
The files were stored in a data repository titled ‘speechanalytics’. In addition to the audio files, Verdict discovered 9,000 VTT files – a format for providing captions to audio files.
The customer calls appear to have been recorded as part of a call centre analytics project. Verdict asked Teletext to confirm if the exposed data related to a project with Indian technology company Zen3, which Teletext Holidays said “is not the case”.
In February 2016, Teletext Holidays implemented the natural language artificial intelligence analytics system to turn call centre conversations into text.
In the exposed data, approximately 9,000 phonecalls are accompanied with text transcripts, potentially making it easier for a malicious hacker to scrape for personal data.
Security implications of Teletext Holidays data breach
Personal data, such as email addresses and dates of birth, can prove valuable information for online criminals. It is common for malicious hackers to sell databases containing personal data on underground forums, where it can be merged with additional personal details to create a full identity profile. Data can then be used to carry out identity fraud, phishing or targeted email attacks.
Malcolm Taylor, director of cyber advisory at cybersecurity consultancy ITC Secure, described the Teletext Holidays data breach as “an intelligence feed for hackers”.
“Aside from the painfully obvious ‘please don’t store unencrypted data in unencrypted data stores and be at all surprised when it leaks’, this makes the point very well that the actual medium in which data is stored is irrelevant; the fact that these were voice files makes no difference to the value of the data to hackers,” he told Verdict.
“It all has a dollar value and is saleable online (and will be for sale already). It is also a treasure trove for anyone who wants to build more sophisticated and damaging attacks – it’s an intelligence feed for hackers; this simple leak could spawn many more and worse.”
Taylor added that it would be fairly simple for a criminal to extract data from the audio files, albeit taking them slightly longer.
The Teletext Holidays data breach is the latest in a long string of security incidents involving unsecured servers, many of which are provided by Amazon Web Services. AWS, which is the world’s biggest cloud hosting provider with a 34% share of the market, gives businesses the choice to keep the data repositories, known as buckets, public or private.
In many high-profile cases, involving both AWS servers and alternatives, a company has simply forgotten to make the files private. Notable recent examples include a database containing the records of millions of Chinese jobseekers, another containing the details of subscription service MoviePass’ customers and a Honda database containing vital information relating to the company’s network security. 532,000 files were found on GrayhatWarfare, a website that enables users to search unsecured S3 buckets.
Teletext Holidays data breach: Does GDPR apply?
Although the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was introduced two years after the data was initially stored online, the fact that it was still online post-GDPR means the company could be liable for breaching the newer data protection laws. Under GDPR, an organisation can be fined a maximum of 4% of annual global turnover for the mishandling of personal data.
In the year ending 2018, Truly Travel, trading as Teletext Holidays, reported 2018 turnover of £152m, putting the maximum possible fine under GDPR at £6.08m
As data controller, Teletext Holidays is responsible for the protection of its customers’ data. Robert Wassall, director of legal services at cybersecurity firm ThinkMarble, told Verdict that the breach was “serious” and that it was “very likely” that Teletext would receive a fine for the data breach, adding that any third party involved may also be made liable.
He cited the number of individuals affected, the length of time it was left online and the risk of identity fraud as key reasons for the company being likely to be fined.
“Call recording is likely to be seen as very privacy-intrusive,” he added.
Teletext Holidays took the files offline around 5pm GMT on Thursday, less than two hours after Verdict notified the company. This prompt removal will likely work in Teletext’s favour in any subsequent investigation by the UK’s data regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), said Wassall.
“Ironically, this may affect Teletext themselves more than the hackers,” added Taylor.
“To begin making contact with their affected clients they will have to find their own way of extracting the details – and they will probably find that more difficult than do the attackers. 532,000 records is not the biggest of leaks, but that will be of no comfort to those individuals affected; this is not an insignificant breach. It will be very interesting to see how the ICO respond.”