Security disaster: Starbucks app stores customers' passwords in plain text

Monday, January 20, 2014 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: Starbucks, customer passwords, security failure

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(NaturalNews) In the technology age, it seems that nary a week or two passes without another sad story relating that Americans' personal information and privacy has been compromised.

Now, according to Washington, D.C.-area radio station WTOP, "The most-used mobile payment app in the United States stored its users personal information in a way that could have gotten a tech-savvy thief a lot of free coffee -- on you."

That would be Starbucks coffee.

Indeed, as the station reported, the coffee giant's executives have confirmed that the store chain's mobile application has been storing user names as well as email addresses and passwords, and all in crystal-clear text, not encrypted text.

The tech pub Computerworld adds:

The credentials were stored in such a way that anyone with access to the phone can see the passwords and usernames by connecting the phone to a PC. No jailbreaking of the phone is necessary. And that clear text also displays an extensive list of geolocation tracking points (latitude, longitude), a treasure trove of security and privacy gems for anyone who steals the phone.

'I would have expected more out of Starbucks'

Tech experts know that when thieves can access a phone owner's information, they can then charge items to the victim's account, up to the amount of stored value on the victim's card. But what's worse, if the victim has chosen an "auto-replenish" option, even more money could be accessed from the victim's bank account.

"What you've described is fair, at a high level," Starbucks CIO Curt Garner said. "From a design perspective, this could have potentially happened."

Computerworld said Starbucks has taken the same path as scores of other firms:

The issue appears to be an example of convenience trumping security. One of the reasons for the Starbucks mobile app's popularity is its extreme ease of use. Customers need only enter their password once when activating the payment portion of the app and then use the app to make unlimited purchases without having to key in the password or username again. (Only when adding money to the app is the password required.)

Naturally, Starbucks could have made the decision to not allow passwords to be stored on phones, but then users would be required to type in their username and password each time they chose to use the app to buy something.

"A company like Starbucks has to make the choice between usability to drive adoption and the potential for misuse or fraud," Charlie Wiggs, general manager and senior vice president for U.S. markets at mobile vendor Mozido, told Computerworld. "Starbucks has opted to make it very convenient. They just have to make sure that their comfort doesn't overexpose their consumers and their brand."

Another security analyst, Avivah Litan, added that Starbuck's decision surprised him.

"I would have expected more out of Starbucks. At least they should have informed consumers," he said.

Two executives, quoted in a phone interview with Computerworld, said they have known the credentials were being stored in plain text and were aware that the coffee chain could have made a different decision regarding passwords and encryption.

"We were aware," said Chief Digital Officer Adam Brotman. "This was not something that was news to us."

Choosing convenience over security

Customers who use the free Starbucks app were only required to enter their password once, while activating payment options. After that, they no longer had to enter a username or password.

Starbucks is only the latest chain to put customers' personal information at risk. In December, big box retailer Target announced that tens of millions of customer purchase records had been hacked.

As reported by CNNMoney, the breach drew the ire of U.S. lawmakers:

Two U.S. senators jumped in with demands for investigations.

Chuck Schumer called on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to report on whether retailers should be required to encrypt customer card data. Richard Blumenthal called for a Federal Trade Commission probe, saying "it appears that Target may have failed to employ reasonable and appropriate security measures to protect personal information."

No breach of Starbucks customer data has been reported, but what is alarming is that, in the age of the hacker - when even encrypted data is at risk - it is unbelievable that a major U.S. retailer would choose convenience over security for its customers.


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