After looking at configuration data from 16 distinct network devices, digital security firm ESET found that over 56% – nine routers – contained sensitive company data.

Corporate secrets readily available on recycled company routers

New research into the fate of corporate network devices sold and bought on the secondary market represents a major cause for security concern.

After looking at configuration data from 16 distinct network devices, digital security firm ESET found that over 56% – nine routers – contained sensitive company data.

Of the networks that had complete configuration data available:

  • 22% contained customer data
  • 33% exposed data allowing third-party connections to the network
  • 44% had credentials for connecting to other networks as a trusted party
  • 89% itemized connection details for specific applications
  • 89% contained router-to-router authentication keys
  • 100% contained one or more of IPsec or VPN credentials, or hashed root passwords
  • 100% had sufficient data to reliably identify the former owner/operator

“The potential impact of our findings is extremely concerning and should be a wake-up call,” said Cameron Camp, the ESET security researcher who led the project. 

“We would expect medium-sized to enterprise companies to have a strict set of security initiatives to decommission devices, but we found the opposite. Organisations need to be much more aware of what remains on the devices they put out to pasture, since a majority of the devices we obtained from the secondary market contained a digital blueprint of the company involved, including, but not limited to, core networking information, application data, corporate credentials, and information about partners, vendors, and customers,” Camp continued.

Organisations often recycle aging tech through third-party companies that are charged with verifying the secure destruction or recycling of digital equipment and the disposal of the data contained therein. Whether an error by an e-waste company or the company’s own disposal processes, a range of data was found on the routers, including:

Third-party data: As we have seen in real-world cyberattacks, a breach of one company’s network can proliferate to their customers, partners, and other businesses with whom they may have connections.

Trusted parties: Trusted parties (which could be impersonated as a secondary attack vector) would accept certificates and cryptographic tokens found on these devices, allowing a very convincing adversary in the middle (AitM) attack with trusted credentials, capable of syphoning off corporate secrets, with victims unaware for extended periods.

Customer data: In some cases, core routers point to internal and/or external information stores with specific information about their owners’ customers, sometimes stored on premises, which can open customers up to potential security issues if an adversary is able to gain specific information about them.

Specific applications: Complete maps of major application platforms used by specific organisations, both locally hosted and in the cloud, were scattered liberally throughout the configurations of these devices. 

These applications range from corporate email to trusted client tunnels for customers, physical building security such as specific vendors and topologies for proximity access cards and specific surveillance camera networks, and vendors, sales and customer platforms, to mention a few. 

Experts were able to determine over which ports and from which hosts those applications communicate, which ones they trust, and which ones they do not. Due to the granularity of the applications and the specific versions used in some cases, known vulnerabilities could be exploited across the network topology that an attacker would already have mapped.

Extensive core routing information: From core network routes to BGP peering, OSPF, RIP and others, researchers found complete layouts of various organisations’ inner workings, which would provide extensive network topology information for subsequent exploitation, were the devices to fall into the hands of an adversary. 

Recovered configurations also contained nearby and international locations of many remote offices and operators, including their relationship to the corporate office – more data that would be highly valuable to potential adversaries. IPsec tunnelling can be used to connect trusted routers to each other, which can be a component of WAN router peering arrangements and the like.

Trusted operators: The devices were loaded with potentially crackable or directly reusable corporate credentials – including administrator logins, VPN details, and cryptographic keys – that would allow bad actors to seamlessly become trusted entities and thus to gain access across the network.

ESET’s Security Chief, Tony Anscombe, said:

“There are well-documented processes for proper decommissioning of hardware, and this research shows that many companies are not following them rigorously when preparing devices for the secondary hardware market.

“Exploiting a vulnerability or spearphishing for credentials is potentially hard work. But research shows that there is a much easier way to get your hands on this data, and more. We urge organisations involved in device disposal, data destruction, and reselling of devices to take a hard look at their processes and ensure they are in compliance with the latest NIST standards for media sanitization.”

The routers in this research originated at organisations ranging from medium-sized businesses to global enterprises in a variety of industries (data centres, law firms, third-party tech providers, manufacturing and tech companies, creative firms, and software developers). 

As part of the discovery process, ESET, where possible, say they disclosed the findings to each identified organisation – several of them household names – collaborating to ensure they were aware of the details potentially compromised by others in the chain of custody of the devices. 

Some of the organisations with compromised information were unresponsive to the revelations, while others showed proficiency, handling the event as a full-blown security breach.

Related Events

PrivSec Global brings together leading experts from around the globe, for a 2-day livestream experience that ensures attendees have access to the latest information, guidance and advice on data protection, privacy and security.

PrivSec Global returns on 17th & 18th May 2023, and will once again deliver a carefully curated agenda that taps into the expertise of subject matter experts, industry leaders and academics.



→ Preventing Insider Threats Without Compromising Workflow

  • Day 1: Wednesday 17th May 2023
  • 17:30 - 18:15