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Basic Controls Can Help Deter Data Breaches

Verizon's data breach report noted 63,437 security incidents last year.

Preventing many data breaches at retail via basic controls seems so easy, it’s almost embarrassing.

This story first appeared in the April 23, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Verizon’s 2014 Data Breach Investigations Report noted that 94 percent of all security incidents in 2013 can be traced to nine basic attack patterns that vary from one industry to another. Often a simple control such as some form of password protection can deter many security incidents. So, too, is having a limit on the number of access attempts before a site becomes locked out.

Verizon’s security team has compiled 10 years of data-breach analytics. This is the seventh year that the team has published its data findings.

According to Suzanne Widup, managing principal and senior analyst on Verizon’s Security Services team, the latest survey includes data from 50 data-sharing partners. That’s up from the 18 who contributed in 2013 and just five in 2012. As for other metrics, the most recent report analyzes 1,367 confirmed data breaches and 63,437 reported security incidents. Over the 10-year period, there have been more than 3,800 confirmed breaches across all types of industries.

In retail, the most common attack patterns are point-of-sale intrusions, Web application attacks and payment card skimmers, Widup said.

The Verizon study noted that there were 467 security incidents last year in the retail industry, with 148 of those incidents resulting in confirmed data loss.

In general, last year POS intrusions accounted for just 14 percent of incidents, compared with Web application attacks at 35 percent. That’s compared with POS intrusions at 31 percent during the years 2011 to 2013 and Web application attacks at 21 percent. Card-skimmer breaches were down to 9 percent last year versus the 14 percent level between 2011 and 2013. That makes Web application attacks the new “hot spot” for the retail industry. Other threat patterns less common in retail include crimeware, the forms of malware aimed at gaining control of systems; insider-privilege misuse, such as access to passwords; cyberespionage; physical theft-loss; denial-of-service attacks that compromise a network, and miscellaneous errors, such as sending an e-mail to the wrong person.

Widup noted that deterring breaches include use of passwords that are hard to guess, double password access, limits on the number of attempts at access to a password-protected site, remote access restriction and having a plan in place in the event of an attack as well as the testing of that response plan. Using antivirus software to guard against malware also helps.

“A lot of times, criminals go after the easy stuff, where basic controls just aren’t in place,” Widup said.

Nowhere is that more evident than in POS retail breaches — including brick-and-mortar, accommodation and food services — where card-present purchases are made.

In many instances, perpetrators have easy access due to no password protection, or use of weak or default passwords. In some cases where franchisees of the same vendor were breached, stolen vendor credentials impacted all groups managed by the same vendor system since they all used the same password. In other instances, the POS intrusion was on a nondedicated machine that was open to the entire Internet, including social-media sites and corporate e-mail accounts.

While last year’s retail data breaches include attacks on the systems at Neiman Marcus Group and Target Corp. — where at least 40 million to as many as 70 million consumers who shopped at the discounter between Black Friday and Dec. 15 had their personal data stolen — the number of POS intrusions has been trending down, Widup said.

“We’ve been seeing fewer incidents. Some of the incidents that happened include a high number of cards being compromised, but the actual number is trending down,” said Widup, who explained that there actually have been fewer attacks involving small businesses or franchises.

In 2013, there were nearly 200 incidents involving POS intrusions, with RAM-scraping malware used 85 percent of the time as the primary tool to capture data. According to the Verizon report, RAM scrapers allow payment card information to be grabbed while being processed in memory, where it is unencrypted, versus being stored on a disk, or processed in transit across a network where encryption is presumed to be in place.

In the case of Web application attacks, the primary aim when the retail industry is targeted is payment-card information. These attacks occur when someone is accessing the site and its data without proper credentials. While validating inputs is one way to deter hacks, enforcing lockout policies and monitoring outbound connections also can help. The survey noted that if a server has no reason to send data to a particular geographic location, such as Eastern Europe, then the business should lock down the Web server’s ability to do so.

While payment-card skimmers still rely on physically implanted devices to read magnetic strips on cards, the criminals no longer have to retrieve the physical devices to collect the data. That’s now being retrieved via Bluetooth and other cellular means. Moreover, skimming devices with built-in SIM cards that allow for remote configuration, as well as remote uploading of data, can be bought online, the survey noted.

Widup said businesses can decrease the chances of success by criminals via the purchase of tamper-resistant terminals, using tamper-evident controls such as an alert sent out when there is tampering or the visual monitoring of the devices, and monitoring by businesses for signs of tampering.