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Are breaches inevitable?

J.F. Rice | Sept. 4, 2014
Security managers have to do a lot more to stay a step ahead of determined hackers.

Is there a reason that data breaches have been happening at a rapid clip lately? And is there more that we, as security managers, should be doing to make sure that our own companies don't join the ranks of the breached?

Home Depot is the latest company to make headlines for a potentially big data breach, and it just might be the biggest one yet. The current record holder is Target, and we've more recently seen the company that owns grocery store chains Supervalu, Albertsons, Acme Markets, Jewel-Osco and Shaw's compromised by hackers. J.P. Morgan and four other major banks appear to have fallen victim to security breaches. UPS stores were also hit by hackers, and several hundred Norwegian companies were compromised. These victims have joined the ranks of Neiman-Marcus, Michael's, Sally Beauty, P.F. Chang's and Goodwill. What's going on? 

The motivation for attacks like these is usually financial. The attackers are stealing credit card and debit card numbers, along with personal information, which they then sell in underground markets. We don't yet know whether this is the case with the banks that were hit; those attacks may have been politically motivated, or we may learn that fraudulent transactions were used to steal money. In any case, there seems to be a big jump in electronic data theft for profit. But the stolen information is only valuable for a few days, and its value diminishes rapidly by the hour. Some security researchers are saying that this loss of value is motivating today's data thieves to move quickly. Another factor may be Microsoft's termination of support for Windows XP, which could be prompting hackers to go for one last all-out heist to grab what they can while many systems are still vulnerable. Perhaps, knowing that all the vulnerabilities of Windows XP would soon vanish, our thieves had a fire sale.  

But I suspect there is more to the story. Most big businesses use standard security procedures and technologies that have been around for years, if not decades. Many of these defenses have not kept up with current threats. Take antivirus, for example. Signature-based malware detection has long been ineffective against modern malware, yet most companies continue to rely on it as a key defense. We know from the details of some of the retail breaches that those who have implemented advanced heuristic malware detection have ignored the alarms set off by the point-of-sale malware (for reasons I cannot fathom). Patching will always be a game of catch-up, with the attackers having the upper hand. And password-based authentication will evidently be with us forever, much as I might rail against it. Attackers use all of these to get through their victims' defenses. 

 

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