Large digital security breaches are a common occurrence in the corporate world today. The latest breach, experienced by consumer credit reporting agency Equifax, follows a trend of troubling hacks that have played out across the globe this year. It seems adversaries will stop at nothing to evolve their threats, move with even more speed, and find new ways to widen their operational space.
Equifax chief executive Richard Smith said his company "will make changes" after a massive security breach in July that may have exposed the data of up to 143 million people, he said in an opinion piece in USA Today on September 12. Smith said the company first learned of the breach on July 29, but didn't go public with the information for six weeks because "we thought the intrusion was limited."
Smith described the hack as the "most humbling moment" in the company's 118-year history. Founded in 1899 and based in Atlanta, Georgia, it is the oldest of the three largest American credit agencies along with Experian and TransUnion. "We are devoting extraordinary resources to make sure this kind of incident doesn't happen again," Smith wrote, promising to "make changes and continue to strengthen our defenses against cyber crimes."
The company has been highly scrutinized for its handling of the data breach, which compromised the personal information of as many as 143 million Americans. Residents in the United Kingdom and Canada were also impacted. After detecting the breach, Equifax waited six weeks before it notified the public in early September. Rather than informing people whose data had been compromised, the company set up a website that wasn't ready for days.
Yahoo experienced similar scrutiny when it dealt with massive data breaches. The company announced in September 2016 that hackers in 2014 had stolen data from more than 500 million of its users' accounts. Yahoo then announced in December 2016 another breach dating back to 2013 in which over a billion users had their data stolen. The US Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation into whether Yahoo should have informed investors sooner about the breaches.
To make up for its failure to protect users' data, Equifax, which rakes in around US$ 3.1 billion in annual revenue, offered free credit monitoring services to its customers. But the company was criticized for requiring those who enrolled for the offer to waive their right to sue the company. Soon enough, Equifax backtracked on the requirement, allowing customers to sue the company if they sent it in writing within 30 days.
Nevertheless, Equifax has been forthcoming about the wider issue of cybersecurity and the need for change. Smith acknowledged some of the company's problems in his article, admitting that consumers and media have raised "legitimate concerns" about the services Equifax offered and the operations of its call center and website. "We accept the criticism and we are working to address a range of issues," he said.
Smith said the company is now committed to doing everything it can to support those affected by the breach. "Our team is focused on this effort and we are engaged around the clock in responding to millions of inquiries from consumers," he said. Equifax has warned, however, that credit card numbers of around 209,000 people have been exposed, in addition to "personal identifying information" on roughly 182,000 customers involved in credit report disputes.
Prior to Equifax's data breach, Time Warner-owned US TV network HBO was the latest major corporation to fall victim to hackers. HBO confirmed on July 31 that a whopping 1.5 terabytes of material had been stolen - a significantly larger amount than the 200 gigabytes stolen from Sony Pictures in 2014. Similar to Equifax's breach, HBO's hackers obtained potentially sensitive information, including employee data and even access to internal corporate emails.
The string of corporate hacks this year, including the global "WannaCry" ransomware attack in May and the subsequent "Petya" attack in late June, represent a chilling trend taking place all over the globe, in which cyber hackers are finding more avenues to infiltrate even the most seemingly protected organizations, by finding new ways to widen their operational space.
An ever-evolving threat
Hackers today have more tools at their disposal than ever before. They also have a keen sense of when to use each one for maximum effect. In Cisco's Annual Cybersecurity Report 2017, it explains how the explosive growth of mobile endpoints and online traffic work in favor of cyber hackers. Adversaries have more space in which to operate, the report claims, and more choices of targets and approaches.
It may not be possible to stop all attacks, the report says, but you can minimize both the risk and the impact of threats by "constraining your adversaries' operational space and, thus, their ability to compromise assets." Cisco suggests that companies should simplify their collection of security tools by integrating them into an automated architecture to streamline the process of detecting and mitigating threats. That leaves companies with more time to address more complex and persistent ones.
According to Cisco's 2017 Security Capabilities Benchmark Study, organizations that have not yet suffered a security breach may believe their networks are safe. This confidence is probably misplaced, the report says, considering that 49 percent of the security professionals surveyed said their organizations have had to manage public scrutiny following a security breach.
Take Yahoo for instance: Following the shocking revelation that 1.5 billion of its users accounts were hacked on two separate occasions, the company was forced to slash the price of its core internet business in the sale to US telecom giant Verizon by $350 million. Yahoo is also in the midst of lawsuits related to the way the hacks were handled. In an effort to diffuse the situation and make up for damage to its reputation, Yahoo announced that it would not award CEO Marissa Mayer a cash bonus for 2016.
The Cisco study found that nearly a quarter of the organizations that have suffered an attack lost business opportunities, and four in ten said those losses were substantial. One in five organizations lost customers due to an attack, and nearly 30 percent lost revenue. When breaches occur, operations and finance were the functions most likely to be affected (36 percent and 30 percent, respectively), followed by brand reputation and customer retention (both at 26 percent).
The report once again emphasizes the importance of companies focusing their resources on reducing their adversaries' operational space if they want to avoid the aforementioned consequences. As a result, attackers will find it difficult to gain access to valuable enterprise resources and to conduct their activities without being detected. Automation, the report says, is essential to achieving this goal.
Automation helps companies to understand what normal activity is in the network environment, so they can focus their resources on more significant threats. Simplifying security operations, the report says, is the most effective way of eliminating adversaries' unconstrained operational space. Unfortunately, most organizations are using more than five solutions from more than five vendors, according to the study, creating a complex web of technology, which can be a recipe for less, not more, protection.