Category Archives: Privacy

China Leads the World in Hacked computers – Proving What?

According to a report by McAfee, in the last three months of 2009, about 1,095,000 computers in China and 1,057,000 computers in the United States were infected and made part of botnets used to send spam or attack Web sites.  Those numbers are in addition to the 10 million previously infected computers in each country. 

Stewart A. Baker, the former assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, points out the obvious in the Washington Post article describing the report when he says the number of botnet computers in a country says more about the vulnerability of the computers than about those who infected them.   Indeed, having so many hacked computers may indicate that China is not the source of as much malicious conduct attributed to it.   Baker points out:  “A nation that might want to use botnets as part of an attack probably would want to have its own computers bot-free and commandeer computers in other countries.”   Although it would be easy to cynically surmise that US interests are using Chinese computers while Chinese interests are simply commandeering US computers, we have a wide world of hackers that makes assigning blame much more complicated.

While the blame game plays out, China continues to deny any government role in hacking or network exploits and has purportedly cracked down on “hacking training sites” as per this recent article in China Daily.  According to the article, Black Hawk Safety Net was the largest hacker training site in China.  It openly recruited members,  disseminated hacker techniques, sold Trojan software and maintained online forums.  Those who ran the Black Hawk Safety Net were arrested under a new Chinese law that criminalized the offering of online attacking programs and software.   The article reports that Chinese Police used more than 50 officers to investigate the case.

Although it remains to be seen whether the widely publicized Google attacks  emanating from China were orchestrated by the Chinese Government, it does not really matter.  What is clear is that these sort of sophisticated attacks are not going away any time soon.  Whether attacks are caused by Chinese nationals, the Chinese Government or other foreign hackers,  companies need to put their combat boots on and throw away the old rules of engagement.  War is being waged against your business.  Protect your digital assets or risk everything.  It’s that simple.

Identity Fraud is at an All Time High – SMBs Beware

After interviewing 5,000 folks, the latest annual Javelin study claims that the number of identity fraud victims in the United States increased 12 percent to 11.1 million adults in 2009, while the total annual fraud amount increased by 12.5 percent (or $6 billion) to $54 billion.  

The report claims that small businesses are sustaining the most hits:  “They suffer identity fraud at one and a half times the rate of all other adults. By using their own personal accounts for business transactions, they are at a greater risk of exposing themselves to identity fraud.”  And, the report suggests that because small businesses are more at risk they “need to implement safety precautions online and offline, and should consider employee background screening checks as a precautionary measure.”

According to the report:

The economic downturn is partially to blame for the rise in identity theft, and identity thieves are increasingly using more sophisticated and varied methods to obtain the personally identifiable information (PII) of consumers. Fraudsters are becoming more sophisticated and more aggressive, and their organized approach to online fraud through a myriad of threats and scams makes it harder to detect.  Fraudsters are also increasingly targeting – and taking over – multiple accounts of their victims, collectively going after checking accounts, credit card accounts, mobile phone accounts, and Internet accounts in one full sweep.

Using a combination of sophisticated malware, keystroke logging, and phishing attacks, fraudsters are able to use organized crime to steal identities. And social networking has introduced yet another means for consumers to exposure their personal information to wider audiences, providing another avenue for fraudsters to conduct their scams.

When it comes to pointing out security threats and exposures, the report’s above descriptions do not really shine a light on anything new or startling.   What is helpful, however, is their pointing out just how widespread and pervasive these exposures are to small businesses – helpful commentary that cannot repeated often enough.

Twitter and the Benefits of NSAP Branding

Twitter disclosed yesterday that it had to reset some passwords due to an exploit that really could have hit any company.  In essence, certain visitors to a fake peer-to-peer search engine signed up for an account using the same username and password they used on their Twitter accounts.  The owners of the fake P2P search engine used this information to access the users’ Twitter accounts.  This exploit is not surprising given that a majority of online banking customers reuse their login credentials on other websites.  Accordingly, standing alone, this would have little impact on Twitter’s security standing.  Unfortunately, there have been more incidents.

On January 5, 2009, several dozen Twitter accounts were hacked, including one belonging to our president.  On May 21, 2009, Twitter’s name was used in a phishing exploit that sent users emails notifying them of new followers and included a link to a fake Twitter site.  There were also security incidents in April and June.  In fact, one analyst has gone so far as to claim Twitter’s security posture is weak enough to be called “security Swiss cheese.”

Why pick on Twitter?  Afterall, yesterday our Director of National Intelligence told members of the Senate’s Select Intelligence Committee that  malicious online activity is growing at an unprecedented rate.  As Dennis Blair put it, “in the dynamic of cyberspace, the technology balance right now favors malicious actors rather than legal actors, and is likely to continue that way for quite some time.”  

The reason to mention Twitter is because their new user growth has slowed down.  Big time.  According to a Hubspot Report, Twitter’s new user rate of growth has gone from 13% in March 2009 to 3.5% for October 2009 (the last month tracked).  

Although Twitter may have lost steam as a social networking tool simply because the novelty has worn thin, it is also likely the case that its public security failings have slowed growth.  It is very likely that the current stagnation in growth is even worse given that it is estimated about 25% of accounts have no followers and about 40% of accounts have never sent a single Tweet.  Why bother signing up for something you likely will not even use if you are skeptical of its security?   Simply put, there is no reason to take a chance on a new company if public security lapses make you feel insecure about your data.

All of this points to the need for better security; and more importantly, the use of a directed marketing message that highlights security best practices.  This strategy would not only serve to benefit social networking companies.  All companies holding personally identifiable information need to get their network security and privacy (NSAP) marketing message out to potential clients.  In other words, NSAP processes and procedures are not just tied to risk management and compliance, they directly relate to a marketing message that should lead to an increase in profitable new business.

SMBs Increase Investment in Data Security

More and more security firms are pushing their products towards the SMB market.  In a recent press release, Blackhat Solutions  looks to sell its services by warning “small to medium businesses of their financial and legal susceptibility in the face of increasingly sophisticated data hacking.”  This is no surprise given Forrester Research projects that about 40 percent of SMBs are planning to increase their IT security budgets for 2010.  In its $1,749 report, Forrester outlines why network security and data security top the IT investment and attention for SMBs.  The goal in increasing funding is to protect data rather than just finding broader operational savings – a past common driver of IT initiatives.

SMBs should also be looking to make a little lemonade with their added expenses.  Why not take this increase in data security expenditure and turn it into a profit-making marketing edge?  Most smaller firms who are able to position themselves as security stalwarts will eventually increase their market share no matter what industry they are in.  It’s that simple.   When building out their enhanced security capabilities, there is no reason SMBs cannot also get this marketing message out to their clients, business partners and employees.

Data Breach Expenses and BCBS of TN

According to a news report, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee admitted on January 25th that it has spent more than $7 million to address an October theft of 57 computer hard drives.   The company said that it may have to spend millions more to assess what was on the missing computer records and to provide identity protection for affected customers.   According to its website, the company has notified 220,000 BCBS customers in Tennessee and other states where persons covered by BCBS of TN plans may work.  Further, determining what was on the stolen hard drives as required by the HITECH Act and state notification requirements has required the hiring of more than 700 contract and BlueCross workers.

If we are to accept the Ponemon Institute’s most recent Cost of Breach report, this breach will ultimately cost BCBS of TN over $44 million.   Given that 67% of the $204 per record cost consists of lost customers and other indirect costs, it looks like BCBS of TN has another $7.8 million to go on its notification, credit monitoring, forensics and other direct expenses.

This breach is a stark reminder that even though the lawsuits are being won by breach defendants, costs incurred prior to the first lawsuit can be very significant.  Having a post-breach gameplan in place to address these costs has certainly become absolutely crucial during the past few years.   After all, nothing hurts a bottom line as quickly as a significant unfunded expense.

Update:  March 14, 2012
BCBS of TN agrees to pay HHS $1.5 million under the HITECH Act’s breach notification settlement.  When coupled with the $17 million in first-party expenses already paid, this incident remains a stark reminder as to the benefits of a network security and privacy insurance policy.

 

Google Attacks Provide a Valuable Lesson

The facts are starting to surface regarding the recent attacks against Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft – all of which have been linked to Chinese interests.  According to one recent report, the attackers selected employees with access to proprietary data, determined their social networking friends and then hacked into those accounts.  Once in control of the friends’ accounts, the attackers (posing as friends) sent their actual targets instant messages with links to sites that installed spying software on their computers.   

This sort of criminal strategy could be applied to any company – large or small.  In fact, it is much easier to assume that the president of a large middle market firm has more valuable intelligence on his computer than a strategic employee at a larger company.   Having knowledge of this sort of attack is important given the overall number of attacks against business has been increasing.  According to a recent CSO Survey, 37% of businesses polled have seen an increase in attacks during the past 12 months.  

One sure way to reduce the risk of a corporate attack is to limit social networking access to those individuals in marketing or sales who have a corporate reason to go to those sites.   Even those individuals should have proper training so that they would know, for example, not to click on links that have strange URLs or link to content that does not serve a distinct corporate purpose.  Also, try hard to avoid clicking on an image.  It may be hard to do.  Our propensity to click on whatever online content we see is a habit not easily kicked.

Ponemon Cost of Breach Report Released

According to the latest Ponemon COB report, data breach attacks have doubled this past year while the average cost of a data breach has increased to $204 per compromised record.  The Ponemon Institute looked at several variables when determining this $204 number, including:  lost business; legal fees; disclosure expenses; consulting help, including forensics; and remediation expenses such as improved technology and training.  Page 16 of the report indicates that lost business is the most significant component of this number – representing $135 of the $204 amount.   In other words, those firms disclosing to the Ponemon Institute information regarding their breach have had a signficant documented loss of business.  In addition to providing this valuable insight regarding brand damage caused by a breach, the report is also instructive given it offers information regarding the causes of 2009 breaches. 

According to this Ponemon Insitute report, data breaches generally have three primary causes:   third party negligence; malicious attacks such as coordinated botnet attacks; and negligent insider behavior.  In fact, the Ponemon Institute points out that 42 percent of all cases in the study involved third-party negligence.  Although this overall number (as well information in the report) is based on information provided by only 45 businesses  willing to speak in detail with the Ponemon Institute, the number should not be taken lightly – especially since it is not that far off from numerous other studies and surveys done over the years. 

The two lessons here – breaches lead to lost business and third-party negligence is a signficant cause of breaches – actually have more to do with marketing then with risk management.  In a prolonged down economy, small and middle market companies need to differentiate by showcasing their network security and privacy strengths.  Instead of shying away from the efforts needed to improve your network risk profile, embrace the endeavor by realizing it will only be a matter of time before you are required to do what you are voluntarily doing now.  As with most corporate best practices, being one step ahead of your competition when it comes to network security and privacy can turn into a significant marketing advantage.  Depending on your business goals and what you do to generate revenue, this advantage can easily turn into a sustained  competitive edge.

Is Privacy Really Dead?

According to this article, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently said that “privacy was no longer a ‘social norm”’.   This convenient point of view comes less than a month after Facebook changed the way it organizes user information.  Under the old system, people had the option of being  placed into regional networks like “North Jersey”, while the new system removes this distinction so that your information can be visible to any Facebook user and not just those in your network.   

As well, the new “Everyone” setting doesn’t just limit your page to Facebook users – it allows access to everyone on the Internet, including Google , Yahoo! and any other search engine spiders.  In other words, if you use the Facebook default settings – which many new users do – you will end up posting to anyone with online access and you may now also end up on a search engine results page.  LinkedIn has been doing this for years now.  This increase in exposure is obviously the goal behind the recent Facebook changes.  In other words, Facebook will be able to grow it’s user base beyond its already staggering 350 million users.

There is obviously a simple solution:  Limit your visability to those who are friends and curtail what you post on your page that is made visible to non-friends.  Go to this site for detailed information on how to set your Facebook privacy settings.  Privacy is not dead – unless you choose to let it die.

Are you ready for Data Privacy Day?

On January 28, 2010, the United States, Canada, and 27 EU countries will celebrate the second annual Data Privacy Day.  If you go to the Data Privacy Day website, you will see links to some helpful privacy resources.

It is with no small bit of irony that Data Privacy Day will also approximately mark the one-year anniversary of the Heartland Payment Systems data breach, the largest privacy data loss in history – potentially impacting over 100 million credit card transactions.   Heartland recently negotiated a $60 million Visa settlement fund that will be used to reimburse Visa’s issuing banks.

Data Breaches, Encryption and ICs

In 2009, there were 498 reported breaches involving over 222 million records.   And, of these 498 incidents, only six firms reported that they had deployed encryption or another strong security to  protect the exposed data.   This is not surprising given that most notification laws provide a safe harbor for encrypted data.  In other words, there would not have been a need to report. 

As well, of the reported records impacted by the breaches, 59% could be attributed to the conduct of independent contractors.  Last year, over 45% of all breached records – 16 million – were compromised by the actions of independent contractors. In fact, the Ponemon Institute reports that 29% of all breaches are caused by third-party negligence.   As the year progresses and budgets continue to be squeezed, the due diligence that was once used to vet vendors will unfortunately slip a bit. And, when vendor engagements start favoring pricing over controls, the resulting increase in vendor data loss may prove staggering.

Improving independent contractor due diligence by employing only those small business vendors with sound data protection practices in place will go a long way in improving your risk profile.  Moreover,  in addition to being a sound way to better protect sensitive data, encryption deployment has the added benefit of protecting you from notification laws and resulting lawsuits.  The public notices speak for themselves.