Using ERM to Protect Your Business from The Equifax Fallout

As with many data breaches, the general conclusion of the Equifax attack is that personnel were not aware of the issue beforehand. This conclusion, however, is false.

In early September, I anticipated that a vulnerability in Equifax’s software was known ahead of time, and that this scandal was, therefore, entirely preventable. A month later, the NY Times reported that the Department of Homeland Security sent Equifax an alert about a critical vulnerability in their software. Equifax then sent out an internal email requesting its IT department to fix the software, but “an individual did not ensure communication got to the right person to manually patch the application.”

The Equifax data breach was a failure in risk management. As a credit bureau that deals with the personally identifiable information (PII) of 200 million U.S. customers, Equifax has a legal and moral responsibility to safeguard their customers’ security, and to adopt the proper systems to do so.

For instance, if Equifax had an enterprise risk management (ERM) system in place, the warning from Homeland Security would have been properly recorded and assigned out to the appropriate personnel. This system would have provided transparency over the status of the task in progress, and would have triggered reminders until the vulnerability was patched and verified by the right subject matter expert.

A Point of No Return

It’s my opinion that this scandal is a point of no return for risk management. While data breaches have abounded in recent years, there has never been one of this magnitude or one that provides every piece of information hackers need to steal our identities. Of course, lawsuits and penalties are piling up around the company’s negligence, but these financial losses are nothing compared to the reputational damages Equifax will suffer—shares fell by 18% following the breach and have yet to fully recover.

What makes this scandal so unique, and therefore a point of no return, is that these reputational damages reach far beyond Equifax. Consumers can’t always choose whether they’re a customer of Equifax, but they can choose whether to do business with the institutions that gave away their information to Equifax in the first place.

I also believe that consumers’ outrage with this scandal will cause them to shift their money, loyalty, and trust to institutions that can demonstrate effective risk management. CEOs and boards of every company will have to prove their organizations have adequate enterprise risk management systems in place. They’ll find that more effective risk management and governance programs are necessary to keep their market shares up and their reputation clean.

Where to Go from Here

While this breach may appear to be an event of the distant past, we are in the eye of the storm. Stolen information can lie dormant for months or years as criminals wait to make their move, and when they do, you’ll have either taken this period of calm as a chance to forget the scandal, finding yourself ill-prepared, or a chance to get to higher ground, finding yourself fully protected.

To protect themselves, businesses must:

  • First, to determine where to focus your security resources, recognize that people, processes, and procedures are now the biggest risks. Businesses need to perform risk assessments across all departments to determine who has access to sensitive information and authentication processes, and what the business impact would be if these employees were to be impersonated.
  • Next, to address these risks, businesses must rewrite their procedures for authenticating the people involved in sensitive requests and actions both verbally and electronically. With so much PII now in the public domain, it is no longer safe to rely on traditional authentication based on these pieces of information. For example, the security question “What was your first car?” is not effective because the answer is now easily accessible. A more effective question would be “Who was your best friend in elementary school?”
  • Finally, it is important to keep your third-party vendors in mind. Vendors often have access to sensitive information and processes, which could have an enormous impact on your company. It is crucial, therefore, to extend your internal authentication procedures out to your third parties so that they are authorizing sensitive requests and actions as securely as your own organization.

Our world, including the business world, is becoming increasingly transparent, meaning it’s up to you to act with integrity and protect your stakeholders. Keeping the Equifax data breach in mind, along with enacting these tactical steps, will help you stay ahead of the competition and out of glaring social media headlines.

Closing the Vendor Security Gap

What do organizations really know about their relationships with their vendors?

It’s a question that most companies can’t answer, and for many, that lack of knowledge could represent increased risk of a security breach. This year, Bomgar conducted research into vendor security on a global scale, and the findings underscore that much work remains to be done to shore up third-party security.

The 2016 Vendor Vulnerability Index report produced eye-opening results that should be a wake-up call for business leaders, CIOs and senior IT managers. The survey of more than 600 IT and security professionals explores the visibility, control, and management that organizations in the U.S. and Europe have over external parties accessing their IT networks. Some of the most surprising statistics are summarized below:

  • An average of 89 vendors are accessing a company’s network every week.
  • 92% of respondents reported they trusted their vendors completely or most of the time.
  • 69% said they definitely or possibly suffered a security breach resulting from vendor access in the past year.
  • In the U.S., just 46% of companies said they know the number of log-ins that could be attributed to vendors.
  • Only 51% enforce policies around third-party access.

It’s evident from these findings that third-party access is pervasive throughout most organizations. What’s more, this practice is likely to grow—75% of the respondents stated that more vendors access their systems today than did two years ago. An additional 71% believe this number will continue to increase for another two years.

Two-thirds of those polled admit they have a tendency to trust vendors too much—confidence that should be questioned based on the results of this report. The data revealed that, while most organizations place a high level of trust in their vendors, they still have a low level of visibility into how vendors are accessing their systems.

This contradiction is not something organizations should take lightly. As noted above, 69% of respondents admitted they had either definitely or possibly suffered a security breach resulting from vendor access. An additional 77% believe their company will experience a security issue within the next two years as a result of vendor activity on their networks.

As an organization’s network of vendors grows, so too does the risk of a potential breach. For most companies, it is essential that third-parties have access to sensitive systems as a course of doing business—the question centers on how to grant this access securely.

Historically, companies have used VPNs to provide network access to third-parties. While appropriate for the intended end-user—remote and/or traveling employees—issues arise when the scope of VPN is trusted to manage connections from external groups. If a system connected via VPN is exploited and used as a point of persistence for leap-frogging into the broader network, hackers can persist for days or months and move stealthily about the network. Companies have also seen malicious (or well-intentioned) insiders choosing to abuse their access to steal or leak sensitive information, as this is all made fairly trivial when leveraging open-ended VPN connectivity.

To balance the dual demands of access and security, companies need a solution that allows them to control, monitor and manage how external parties are accessing their systems. Rather than providing “the keys to the kingdom,” a modern secure access solution enables organizations to grant vendors and other third-parties access only to the specific systems and applications needed to do their jobs.

To ensure security, organizations should also select a secure access solution that provides video and text logs of all session activity. This allows companies to monitor how remote access is being used and, perhaps more importantly, by whom. With this technology, any suspicious activity can be immediately flagged for further investigation. In addition, these session forensics can help companies meet internal and external compliance requirements.

Another secure access best practice is to employ a password/credential vaulting solution. This enables organizations to mitigate the risk of credentials shared between privileged users, which are often the target of a threat actor. It also reduces the risk of what system administrators often think of as “the stickynote nightmare,” where a sensitive credential is written on a stickynote and stuck on someone’s monitor for all who walk by to see. Password vaulting technologies also help with the dangers posed by embedded system service accounts that have administrative privileges and are rarely rotated for fear of bringing critical business services down. A small, yet strong initiative to protect network security would include requiring every privileged user to access credentials required for elevated work via checking out of a password vault. This removes most of the challenges associated with sharing credentials as, once they are checked back in, those credentials can be immediately rotated and thus become unknown to the employee or the bad actor who may have stolen them. Incorporating multi-factor technology in order to access the password vault and other sensitive systems takes it a step further.

In today’s heightened environment, following these steps should be essential security best practices for any company allowing vendors or other third-parties to access their network.

The Vendor Vulnerability Index report suggests that companies are aware of the threats posed by ineffective management and poor visibility into vendor access. Yet, as the data shows, just slightly over half of the respondents are enforcing any policies around third-party access. In light of these findings, companies should also ensure that they are properly screening any third-parties with whom they share network access. For example, does the vendor provide security awareness training as part of their employee on-boarding process? Asking this and similar questions will give companies a clearer picture of the vendor’s security ethos, and help them to determine if the partnership is a good fit to begin with.

In order to combat this growing vulnerability, organizations need granular control over external access. Only with such a solution in place can companies feel confident that their vendors won’t unintentionally become their weakest security link.

10 Lessons Learned from Breach Response Experts

SAN FRANCISCO—As hacking collectives target both the public and private sectors with a wide range of motivations, one thing is clear: Destructive attacks where hackers destroy critical business systems, leak confidential data and hold companies for ransom are on the rise. In a presentation here at the RSA Conference, the nation’s largest cybersecurity summit, Charles Carmakal and Robert Wallace, vice president and director, respectively, of cybersecurity firm Mandiant, shared an overview of some of the biggest findings about disruptive attacks from the company’s breach response, threat research and forensic investigations work.

In their Thursday morning session, the duo profiled specific hacking groups and the varied motivations and tactics that characterize their attacks. Putting isolated incidents into this broader context, they said, helps companies not only understand the true nature of the risk hackers can pose even in breaches that do not immediately appear to target private industry.

One group, for example, has waged “unsophisticated but disruptive and destructive” against a number of mining and casino enterprises in Canada. The hackers broke into enterprise systems, stole several gigabytes of sensitive data and published it online, created scheduled tasks to delete system data, issued ransom requests, and even emailed executives and board members directly to taunt them about the data exposed and increase the pressure to pay. Further increasing that pressure, the group is known to contact journalists in an attempt to publicize the exposed data. Victims have endured outages for days while trying to recover data from backups, and some have paid the ransoms, typically requested in the range of $50,000 to $500,000 in bitcoin.

Mandiant refers to this group as Fake Tesla Team because the hackers have tried to seem a more powerful and compelling threat by claiming they are members of Tesla Team, an already existing group that launches DDoS attacks. As that group is thought to be Serbian, they have little reason to target Canadian entities, and indeed, the bits of Russian used by Fake Tesla Team appears to be simply translated via Google.

In all of the group’s attacks that Mandiant has investigated, the hackers had indeed gained system access and published data, but they exaggerated their skills and some of the details of access. Identifying such a group as your attacker greatly informs the breach response process based on the M.O. and case history, Mandiant said. For example, they know the threat is real, but have seen some companies find success in using partial payments to delay data release, and they have found no evidence that, after getting paid, the collective does anything else with the access they’ve gained.

Beyond considerations of specific hacking groups or their motivations, Carmakal and Wallace shared the top 10 lessons for addressing a breach Mandiant has distilled from countless investigations:

  1. Confirm there is actually a breach: make sure there has been a real intrusion, not just an empty threat from someone hoping to turn fear into a quick payday.
  2. Remember you face a human adversary—the attacker attempting to extort money or make other demands is a real person with emotional responses, which is critical to keep in mind when determining how quickly to respond, what tone to take, and other nuances in communication. Working with law enforcement can help inform these decisions.
  3. Timing is critical: The biggest extortion events occur at night and on weekends, so ensure you have procedures in place to respond quickly and effectively at any time.
  4. Stay focused: In the flurry of questions and decisions to make, focus first and foremost on immediate containment of the attack.
  5. Carefully evaluate whether to engage the attacker.
  6. Engage experts before a breach, including forensic, legal and public relations resources.
  7. Consider all options when asked to pay a ransom or extortion demand: Can you contain the problem, and can you do so sooner than the attack can escalate?
  8. Ensure strong segmentation and control over system backups: It is critical, well before a breach, to understand where your backup infrastructure is and how it is segmented from the corporate network. In the team’s breach investigations, they have found very few networks have truly been segmented, meriting serious consideration from any company right away.
  9. After the incident has been handled, immediately focus on broader security improvements to fortify against future attacks from these attackers or others.
  10. They may come back: If you kick them out of your system—or even pay them—they may move on, perhaps take a vacation with that ransom money, but they gained access to your system, so remember they also may come back.

Retail Data Security: Preparing for the Top Threat for Holiday Breaches

holiday shopping retail risk

Here’s the question of the season: What is the true cause of the retail breaches we read about year after year? While malware or ransomware may get most of the scary security press, they aren’t in fact the main culprit. The primary cause of most retail breaches is, by far, stolen credentials. These are the usernames and passwords of employees, contractors or partners of a retail firm. Victim firms such as Target Corp., Home Depot, eBay and others have fallen prey to similar attacks in recent years: a trusted insider’s credentials were stolen and hackers used those to access the network. In some cases, the credentialed access led to the installation of malware on card reader systems, while in others, hackers took different paths.

The point is clear, however: the access credentials of trusted insiders are in fact the biggest risk factor for a breach in the retail sector. Verizon’s annual data breach survey, released earlier this year, confirms this, with credential attacks identified as the top source of data breaches as 63% occurred via weak or stolen credentials.

This isn’t a particularly new insight. The Target and Home Depot breaches, both via stolen vendor credentials, happened more than two years ago. And yet, as the Verizon report indicates, large firms are still quite vulnerable to credential attacks. Why is a credential-based attack so hard to detect? The point of the attack is to impersonate a valid user (an employee, contractor or some other insider) going about his or her daily job. When a financial analyst logs into a financial system using her regular ID and password, for example, we do not expect an alarm to sound.

The retail environment has some unique factors that make detection more difficult. For example, retailers employ large numbers of seasonal workers, so knowing whether a particular person should be allowed near a secure server in the back room of a store may be difficult. The general buzz and chaos in retail stores may weaken security checks, and sheer volume of transactions, returns, special orders, and the like can distract employees and open up security gaps.

There are, however, concrete steps that can be taken.

The first is simple: most if not all retailers have two networks, one corporate and one retail (in-store). Human resources, research and development, accounting, and other corporate functions operate on the corporate network. Point of sale systems, cashiers, and store managers operate on the retail network. In theory, these networks are completely walled off from each other, using two-factor authentication and other security systems. A temporary sales clerk should not be able to access the payroll system at corporate headquarters and download employee social security numbers, just as an HR specialist at headquarters should not be able to access the credit card database within a store point-of-sale (POS) server. This is especially sensitive since many retailers haven’t yet rolled out chip-and-pin readers. If a card number is stolen from a POS system, it’s usable in many places.

A basic check would be to ensure that the two-factor authentication system between the corporate and retail networks is working correctly, is updated with patches, and is applied as broadly as possible. However, this is not always the case, and there have been instances where hackers have been able to steal a corporate user’s credentials (using a keylogger or other type of malware) and then bypass the authentication system to connect to hundreds of in-store POS systems. Perhaps the system configuration has “drifted” over time and needs re-certification. This is an easy check on network security risk.

Another step relates to context—in other words, understanding what is normal. As mentioned above, a retailer during the holiday season manages chaos on a daily basis. It is too easy for attacks to slip by without notice during the noise and commotion. Recall the advice given to New Yorkers after 9/11: “If you see something, say something.” While relying on employees to notice unusual behavior is fine, a better approach is to augment humans with smart technology that understands normal behavior and can raise an alarm when behavior is suddenly not normal.

For example, a specialist in IT is accessing hundreds of POS systems in multiple stores via the corporate network. Is that okay? It is hard to say. Perhaps he is doing it as part of a backup process or maybe he is helping restore systems after a failure. Without knowing what is normal for this person, as well as for his peers, it is very difficult to judge the riskiness of his actions. Behavioral analytics systems are built for this problem. They analyze past behavior and build baselines, just as VISA and MasterCard do for every credit card owner. When an employee suddenly starts logging into store POS systems but has never done so before, behavioral baselines can provide the context needed to alert that this user might in fact be a hacker.

Retailers are getting better about security every year, improving risk management processes and rolling out new security technologies. Credential attacks remain the top threat for retail breaches, however, and retail firms must both verify their processes and also look to new solutions, such as behavioral analytics, to close the risk gap.