Is Metadata a Threat to Your Online Security?
By Christine Margret 4 minutes
Metadata is powerful and if fall into the wrong hands then massive security damage will continue to occur. Metadata is equivalent to user-identity. Anyone who has a privacy-focused vision should be concerned about it.
It can be a threat to an organization’s online security. In fact, cyber-attackers can wreak havoc on the company’s most sensitive information using metadata.
Now, to comprehend things technically better, let’s first get a glimpse over what is metadata. We will also explain to you how cybercriminals leverage metadata to crack online security later in this blog.
What is Metadata?
At its simplest, Metadata refers to data about data. Every file that you share, receive, download or upload contains metadata.
The purpose of metadata is to provide a summary of the big data, its description, context, and characteristics.
Let’s take an example of an image. When you click an image, you automatically see its metadata that contains the elements below:
- Date and time
- Camera settings
- Device name
- Geolocation (if enabled).
Similarly, everything contains metadata. Whether it is just a simple Word file, a video, a PDF document, or anything.
I am assuming that your concepts about metadata are clear. Now I am going to further explain how hackers may use metadata to exploit online security.
How Hackers Steal Private Information Using Metadata
The bad guys use different tools to extract metadata. Usually, metadata stored in two ways. It can be stored in a specific document called a data dictionary or in data fields called metadata repository.
Depending on the file type, hackers use different tools to extract metadata information of a file.
Metadata contains different information pieces of a particular file. These pieces of information include user names, users’ operating system, author names, software version, and Mac address in rare cases. Hackers compile and analyze this information to design attacks and crack sensitive information.
Here’s a simple example of how hackers attack users while leveraging metadata. Let’s imagine the following scenario.
You are running a jewelry business, and to promote new designs, your marketing team uploaded an enticing brochure. Since you are a jewelry company with no cybersecurity focus. You didn’t perform any scrutiny for your PDF brochure’s metadata. What happens next will shock you.
Here’s How the Hacker Targets PDF’s Metadata
A couple of days later, a hacker downloads this PDF brochure. The attacker examines the metadata of the PDF file. To create an attack, he found the two most relevant features of the PDF document:
- PDF version 1.5
- Software – Calligra Suite 2.4
The attacker got the critical information that is your software version number. Now, he decides to run a penetration test to see plausible vulnerabilities.
OpenOffice appears to be vulnerable to targeting. But, after further research, the attacker found that he can exploit the Calligra Suite.
In his next move, the attacker will plan a reverse shell strategy to successfully deploy the payload. He will take help from social engineering and provoke any employee to open a Calligra suite doc.
The PDF brochure of your company was created with the help of the same software. There are chances that designers might have it installed on the system.
How Hacker Uses Social Engineering to Deliver Payload
The cyber attacker will find your designing team on social platforms like LinkedIn. Now, he pretends to be a follower notifying about an error in the brochure. Your marketing team will receive the same PDF file with an error highlighted. Anyone from the team will open the file to rectify the error but, only a blank page will appear.
On the other side, the attacker will get a successful shell connection. He accesses the network from the victim’s system. In case, if your company is not using other security tools, your financial records will also compromise.
How to Prevent Metadata Security Leaks
Do not add information that includes author details, software name and version, telephone numbers, and email address. Also, make sure to use a VPN with 256-bit encryption for strong network protection.
Keep metadata minimum with just basic information. It will prevent hackers to obtain useful information and they can not be exploiting security holes.
From the cybersecurity viewpoint, metadata can be extremely dangerous but often overlooked. Cybercriminals use metadata as a tool to throw payload and steal network access control. To avoid all the possible security threats you have to follow certain criteria. Try to keep your files sanitized, use a VPN, and don’t forget to keep your metadata precise.