The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has opened an investigation into the leak of an estimated 114,000 Apple iPad user email addresses.
Hackers belonging to a group called Goatse obtained the email addresses after uncovering a Web application on AT&T's Web site that returned an iPad user's email address when it was sent specially written queries. After writing an automated script to repeatedly query the site, they downloaded the addresses, and then handed them over to Gawker.com.
Now the FBI is trying to figure out whether this was a crime. "The FBI is aware of these possible computer intrusions and has opened an investigation into addressing the potential cyberthreat," said Lindsay Godwin, an FBI spokeswoman.
The investigation was opened Thursday by the FBI's Washington Field Office, she said. Godwin did not know if the investigation was opened at the request of Apple or AT&T. AT&T declined to comment, and Apple has not replied to requests for comment.
According to Gawker, Goatse hackers were able to download e-mail addresses belonging to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer. They also gained access to addresses belonging to employees of Google, Amazon, Microsoft and the US military.
The hackers did this by guessing thousands of unique numbers - called ICC-ID (Integrated Circuit Card Identifier) - belonging to iPad users and feeding them into the AT&T Web site.
They wrote a PHP script that flooded AT&T's Web site with possible ICC-ID numbers and logged responses when the site returned an e-mail address. According to an interview with AT&T Chief Security Officer Ed Amoroso, the script exploited a feature on the Web site designed to auto-fill a login form with an e-mail address in order to speed things up when iPad 3G users went to view their AT&T accounts.
In a blog post Thursday, Goatse said that it did nothing illegal. The group obtained the the email addresses via a public Web interface and then gave them to Gawker, but no one else, and has since destroyed the data, it said. "We did not contact AT&T directly, but we made sure that someone else tipped them off and waited for them to patch until we gave anything to Gawker. This is as 'nice guy' as it gets."
US law prohibits the unauthorised accessing of computers, but it is unclear whether the script that the Goatse group used violated the law, said Jennifer Granick, civil liberties director with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The question is, when you do an automated test like this, [are you] getting any type of unauthorized access or not," she said.
If it turns out the data in question was not misused, it is unlikely that federal prosecutors will press charges, she added.