Remember a couple weeks ago when the adultery website Ashley Madison and assorted “sibling” sites were hacked? The alleged hackers were holding the data hostage and demanding (parent company) Avid Life Media be held accountable for what the hackers claimed was the fraudulent business practice of offering website “patrons” the opportunity to pay have their data completely erased. The data has been released (including the supposedly erased data), it is now searchable thanks to websites like Have I Been Pwned, and it’s wrecking lives like, well, a proverbial home-wrecker. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision why this is happening – marriage as an institution in America has been on some fairly rough ground lately, but you don’t come to this blog for that kind of gossip…
So here’s my IT angle on the whole mess:
- Just one, simple piece of data in the wrong place at the wrong time can be a game changer. In the case of the above, finding someone’s email address in the database separate from any other context can utterly destroy trust. And this doesn’t have to be a spouse or a family member: it can be a congregant, constituent, employee, employer, customer, client, prospect, competitor, adversary or worse – a true enemy. Many have said that their accounts were created for research (I didn’t even put that in quotes), and many probably were and even have official documentation backing up that claim, but when data is released without context, the victims don’t have any control over how the data is viewed or used.
- Most agree that Avid Life Media’s IT team had more that adequate protections and data encryption in place, but like every other business, they were fighting a losing battle. As I’ve said repeatedly (as has most of the industry), the current battle against digital intrusion is a war of attrition, and the attackers have the upperhand. They only have to succeed once to win, but we, in defending our organizations, cannot stumble even once. In case you are having trouble envisioning why this is, imagine a game of soccer where you are the goalie and the hacker is the other team. It’s just you versus the entire team, and there are multiple balls in play. They only have to score once to win. You, on the other hand, can only hope to get one of the opposing team out on penalty to slow them down, but guess what? They have a rather deep bench. And there are no time outs.
- Do your employees or vendors have access to data or systems to which they shouldn’t? Some believe the hack was an inside job. Keep in mind that you have to trust someone at some point to manage your security. Though it may be difficult or even painful to examine your operations for disgruntled employees or customers, unethical or inhumane practices reap as they sow, as Avid Life Media is perhaps experiencing first hand.
- Things done on the internet can never be erased. Even if you pay someone to do so, and they make an honest attempt at it, the internet never forgets. Want to keep something secret? Keep it as far away from the internet as possible. Can’t (or won’t) do that? Count on it not being secret and at least you’ll be prepared for when it does become public. Also, there are very few levels of obscurity on the internet, in most cases, things are merely forgotten or overlooked, but they never truly disappear from view.
- Privacy and security are hard won, and increasingly so as time progresses. Expect the costs of maintaining these things to continue to rise.
With all the recent, high profile hacks it’s hard to not be a “Debbie Downer” when it comes to the current state of security and privacy – but don’t fool yourself into thinking that things aren’t as bad as they might seem. Taking a realistic view on internet privacy and security is important in achieving a balanced perspective when making decisions on what to spend (both in dollars and energy) on defending yourself and your business. It’s not the end of the world. Not nearly. But it’s rough out there, and likely to get worse before it gets better. Be prepared, be realistic: plan for the worst and hope for the best.
Hacktivism is not new, but when the data stolen and released targets a group already beseiged by violent acts of “protest”, have the hackers stepped over the line into actual terrorism? What if the data stolen contains sensitive data aside from financial information, such as medical records, or proof of infidelity? What if the security hole could be used to crash a moving vehicle? Following the scandalous breach at Ashley Madison comes three more hacks that will add to your gray hairs. First up is the “doxing” of Planned Parenthood employees after a hacking group penetrated their network and gained access to employee information, which they promptly released online. It’s not a far stretch to imagine those 300 people being targeted for harassment and violence by more “hands-on” anti-abortion groups now that their information has been made public. Regardless of your feelings about a group’s politics, lining up people in the cross-hairs on an issue known to incite extreme acts of violence is never the right way to protest.
That’s not the worst of it. Keep reading.
UCLA Health – one of the largest hospital systems in the country – revealed that it too had been hacked, and sensitive data on 4.5 million patients and employees has been compromised. While admitting that the usual sensitive information was likely exposed, UCLA officials could not confirm whether the data had actually been stolen, and to add insult to injury, they are only now admitting to the hack, months after the actual breach was detected. No mention was made whether medical records were exposed, though one imagines if such a thing had happened, the enormous liability exposure would lead to full disclosure. One would hope.
If you happened to be a UCLA patient and the owner of a new Jeep Cherokee, you are probably having a really bad week. Fiat Chrysler is recalling over one million new SUV’s after details were released by two hackers who were able to physically disable a moving Jeep Cherokee and send it into a ditch, while the driver was helpless to do anything about it. With our cars becoming increasingly automated and connected (and at some point, self-driving), you can bet this type of event will become more commonplace. It’s good that Fiat Chrysler decided to recall the potentially dangerous vehicles, but indicative of a wider blind spot in all industries of the mounting threat of cyberattacks. Hackers have supposedly been trying for years to call attention to security problems like ones exploited in the Jeep, as others have in industries like airplane manufacturing. Let’s hope no one has to crash a plane to get their attention.
First the country’s largest bank has a huge data breach, and now the nation’s largest bond insurer admits that it inadvertently exposed sensitive customer information through its website. As an example of the old maxim, “Man has no greater enemy than himself,” MBIA, Inc. allowed unfettered access to a subset of very sensitive customer information (think: customer names, account and routing numbers, balances and dividend amounts) via a poorly configured webserver that opened up this data to the general internet. Access was so unrestricted as to allow search engines to index up to 230 pages of information that also included administrative login credentials that could lead to much more significant security breaches throughout the MBIA infrastructure.
What this means for you:
Today’s technology is a resounding testament to how innovative humans are, but equally apt to demonstrate just how fallible we can be. In the digital world, a simple mistake can lead to millions being compromised in life-affecting ways. Most of you aren’t responsible for millions of customers or their data, but imagine if you had to contact your hundreds or thousands of customers with the bad news that “due to a configuration error” their data was leaked to the internet, and probably in the hands of cybercriminals. Whether it is thousands or millions, it would still be a nightmare, especially if your business isn’t big enough to be able to count on the data breach fatigue that has allowed Target, Home Depot and JP Morgan to sail past titanic failures in security. In the end, your security boils down to one thing: humans, not machines. Knowing this, you should always hope for the best (we will get better at this) and plan for the worst: we’re going to make a lot of mistakes along the way!
America’s biggest bank JP Morgan Chase announced last week that it was the latest victim of a major security breach. According to their regulatory filing, data from nearly 80 million customers was exposed in a successful hacking attempt earlier this year. Though the bank was quick to emphasize that our money and most sensitive bits of info such as dates of birth, social security, passwords and IDs weren’t stolen, names, addresses, emails and phone numbers were – all which could be used to facilitate an identity theft, but which aren’t considered protected or sensitive in most cases. While it’s troubling that the country’s number one bank got hacked, what’s even more worrying is that the media, the public, and even Wall Street seemed to shrug it off and carry on.
What this means for you:
Americans seem to be developing what some analysts are dubbing data breach fatigue: everytime we look up, yet another high-profile company or livelihood staple has been hacked. The list reads like a modern family’s honey-do list: Target, Home Depot, Neiman Marcus, EBay, UPS, Apple, Nintendo, Sony, Albertsons, SuperValu, CHS, etc. There have been nearly 600 data breaches reported this year, up 27% over last year, and we aren’t even done with 2014. Fortunately, only a small percentage of the total population have been negatively impacted in a signficant way, though most of us have probably had one or more credit cards get canceled and replaced for fraudulent activity. What this is leading to is the general perception that these data breaches are “bad” only in a vaguely annoying way, and there is not much that an average person can do to protect themselves, “Heck, if JP Morgan can’t figure out how to keep the hackers at bay, how can I ever stand a chance?”
While it’s true you can’t stop JP Morgan from getting hacked, you can make it harder for cybercriminals to hack you: don’t give in to the fatigue – make them fight for every bit they try to steal from you. Change your passwords regularly, and use unique passwords for your important accounts. Keep a close eye on your credit card statements and your credit history. Make sure your all computers you use have up-to-date and functioning antivirus software. Avoid email attachments and unfamiliar websites. What was once considered “paranoia-level” precautions are the new standard of online safety. Considering that nearly half of Americans adults have had some form of their personal data stolen through an online breach, it’s safe to say that “they” are out to get you – paranoia or not.
Security firm Hold Security LLC is reporting that a cache of 360 million account credentials are up for sale on the black market. Of the 360 million identities, 105 million of them may be from a single data breach, the size of which rivals Adobe’s breach (153 million) from October 2013. Also on sale are 1.25 billion email addresses, a veritable treasure trove for spammers. In this particular case, the account credentials up for sale seem to be mostly comprised of account logins and unencrypted passwords, an important distinction as any buyer can immediately start using the data versus spending time unencrypting passwords.
What this means for you:
Given the sheer volume of account credentials compromised it’s highly likely one or more accounts you use is somewhere on that list, as well as the passwords associated with those accounts. According to Hold Security, they believe the organizations from whom this data was stolen are still unaware of the breach, so it’s even more likely you will be the last to know if you have been compromised. Rather than waiting around, I recommend changing your passwords on all your important online accounts to much stronger, randomized ones, such as can be created and managed by programs like internet-based LastPass or Passpack (my personal choice), or if you prefer to keep your passwords closer to home, desktop programs like Roboform or 1Password.
Image courtesy of Creativedoxfoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
A new website entitled “HaveIBeenPwned.com” recently launched that indexes millions of accounts that have been exposed in some of the largest data breaches in the past 3 years, including the most recent data theft from Adobe, in which over 153 millions accounts were dumped onto the internet. This website allows anyone to punch in their email address to see if their credentials were a part of the haul the data thieves looted in these attacks. Interestingly enough, I punched in my personal email address and discovered (as expected) my account was one of the 153 million exposed in the Adobe breach. Other breaches covered in this database include Yahoo, Sony, Stratfor and Gawker. If you happen to use any websites from those companies, it may be worth your while to check to see if you might have a password issue.
What this means for you:
If you happen to score one or more hits in the database on this website, and you know you’ve used the same password exposed in the above data breaches on other sites, you should stop using that password immediately and head out to change your other passwords ASAP. Even if you didn’t score a hit in the database, there are data breaches happening constantly, and computers have become strong enough to crack the encryption used to store and ostensibly protect them. Where possible (and reasonable), you should be using unique, strong passwords for all your important web services, especially the ones that have access to your sensitive data and money. Programs like Passpack (what I use) and LastPass are indispensible tools to assist in making strong password use practical. Each has a bit of a learning curve and will take some getting used to, but the time spent will be a worthwhile investment in protecting yourself online.
Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Portable flash drives, also known as “thumb” drives, are about as common as their physiological namesake. They are readily available, useful for a variety of tasks, and now so cheap as render them nearly disposable. Partly because of their ubiquity and seemingly innocuous profile, they make extremely effective malware vectors and continue to be the bane of information security professionals everywhere:
- As part of a security test conducted by the Department of Homeland Security, USB drives were left in the parking lots of other government agencies and private contractors. After being spotted and picked up by employees, almost two-thirds of the orphaned drives were plugged into networked computers, even though the users had no clue as to the thumb drive’s origins, and if the thumb drive had a faux government logo on them, nearly 90% were accessed via networked computers.
- A survey of 300 IT professionals conducted at the 2013 RSA Security Conference found that almost 80% of respondents have plugged in thumb drives with questionable or unknown origins, despite probably knowing full well the dangers such an action could present.
- Infamous NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden purportedly copied digital documents supporting his claims onto a thumb drive that he smuggled without much effort into and out of the National Security Agency.
What this means for you:
Because of their size and capability, thumb drives are not something that will be controlled through simple policy and half-hearted enforcement. Companies with tightly managed technology environments can enforce a ban on non-authorized USB devices through centrally controlled software policies, and some have gone so far as to glue shut open USB ports in an attempt to close this security gap. For smaller companies with less dire security requirements, this may not be a reasonable solution. Instead, you should continue to make sure that you have working anti-malware in place and set to scan any storage device inserted into your computer. On top of this, if you regularly use thumb drives to transport business data, those drives should be encrypted with a strong password to prevent security breaches due to loss or theft, and obviously, they should be backed up regularly for the same reason. And for goodness sakes, don’t pick up some random thumb drive lying on the ground and plug it into your computer. You really don’t know where that thing has been!
Image courtesy of bplanet / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
With results that will probably surprise no one (and warming the hearts of black-hat hackers everywhere), the US Government Accountability Office has published its findings on a recent security audit of the Internal Revenue Service. The summary reads like the report card every good parent dreads, “Needs improvement.” Despite having a comprehensive security plan (the development of which was funded by your dollars!) the GAO has found that the IRS has failed to follow through in many areas of implementing and enforcing that plan in various parts of its operation, and these failures have severely compromised the overall security of the very important data the IRS collects on all American citizens.
What this means for you:
As you might expect, the 31-page GAO report is not the most exciting of page-turners. I’ll save you the dry read with the “moral” of the story: having a security policy is only as good as how well it is enforced and maintained. It does your company no good to say that “All employees must use strong passwords that are changed every 60 days” if no one is checking to see if they are actually adhering to the policy. It’s actually much worse for your company if you do have a security policy, experience a breach, and then discover that the breach was due to lack of enforcement.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not recommending against having a security policy. You should have a security policy, especially if you handle sensitive data of any sort, and you should be making every effort to enforce, update and maintain that policy on a regular basis. A simple security breach could cause untold damage to your company’s reputation, and even more so if you have to admit that it happened because you failed to follow through on your own company’s policies.
Thanks to the commoditization of computer hardware, it’s possible to buy a serviceable laptop that costs less than $500 brand new. This has resulted in many companies relaxing the restrictions they had on their purchase and use, but a small healthcare provider in North Idaho learned a harsh lesson that hardware costs are the least of their worries when it comes to losing a laptop. The Hospice of North Idaho recently had a laptop stolen that contained unencrypted, sensitive personal information on over 400 of their patients, and because this is a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the Department of Health and Human Services is slapping the non-profit hospice with a $50,000 fine.
What this means for you:
Even if you aren’t a healthcare provider, being aware of the data on your company’s laptops should be a top concern, regardless of whether you think the data doesn’t fall into the protected class outlined by HIPAA. Mobile electronics, like laptops and smartphones are a prized target of thieves, on top of being ridiculously easy to damage and/or misplace all on their own. If your laptops are used heavily on the road, you should consider encrypting some or all of the data on the device, as well as making sure employees are using physical security devices like cable locks whenever the laptop is set down for more than 5 minutes, even if in a “secured” working environment. If your smartphone has access to any company or customer data, you should have auto-locking enabled and at least a 6-digit pin or password to unlock it. Cable locks won’t stop a determined thief, but it will deter most casual theft, and data encryption + passwords will make sure you never have to have that meeting with a client (or worse, a prospect) to let them know that their data might be at risk.
Image courtesy of “cooldesign” / FreeDigitalPhotos.net