Was the Equifax Breach Preventable?

By Michael Hall, Chief Information Security Officer

Personal Data

Founded in 1899, Equifax is the oldest of the three largest credit agencies along with the other two being Experian and TransUnion. These companies offer credit and demographic data and services to businesses. They also sell credit monitoring and fraud-prevention services directly to consumers. Consumer information is gathered by these companies even for individuals who never sign up for their services.

The Big Breach

On September 7, 2017 Equifax disclosed their systems had been hacked. The breach, which affected more than 169 million customers worldwide, included access to personal and financial data such as names, addresses, social security numbers, birthdates, driver’s license numbers, credit card numbers and other documents with personal identifying information.

All of this stolen data can be sold on the dark web, an area of the World Wide Web which can be accessed using special software. The dark web allows users to remain anonymous and untraceable. For this reason, it has become a conduit for criminals to buy and sell stolen personal information.

Though the attack began in mid-May, the breach was not observed by Equifax until July 29, 2017, according to Equifax then CEO Richard Smith (resigned September 26, 2017). The hackers exploited a weakness in Apache Struts, web-application software widely used in enterprise computer systems. Apache says a patch to fix the vulnerability was issued on March 7 2017, months before the hack. Apache stated, “The Equifax data compromise was due to their failure to install the security updates provided in a timely manner.”

According to a report by Wired, a representative of an analytics security firm said Equifax, like other users of the software, should have been aware of a fix for the vulnerability well in advance of the actual breach.

“There were clear and simple instructions of how to remedy the situation. The responsibility is then on companies to have procedures in place to follow such advice promptly,” Bas van Schaik, a product manager and researcher at Semmle, an analytics security firm, told Wired.

“The fact that Equifax was subsequently attacked in May means that Equifax did not follow that advice,” van Schaik continued. “Had they done so, this breach would not have occurred.”

René Gielen, the vice president of Apache Struts, told Wired, “Most breaches we become aware of are caused by failure to update software components that are known to be vulnerable for months or even years.”

The Big Impact

Equifax is an information juggernaut that manages huge amounts of data regarding creditworthiness of nearly 100 million companies and a billion individuals in the United States and two dozen other countries.

Smith, the former Equifax CEO, said in a speech at the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia last month “You think about the largest library in the world … the Library of Congress, we manage almost 1,200 times that amount of content every day, around the world.”

Equifax is now investigating the scope of the breach and working to get back in control. This includes an offer to victims for free identity theft protection and an Equifax credit file monitoring product for one year. Visit the Equifax website to find out if your information was compromised and, if so, follow the necessary steps.

Regularly Update Security Software

The key lesson? All companies with sensitive data on their systems must keep on top of updates to software and operating systems. One part of this is to stay up-to-date with any communications from software suppliers regarding potential problems and solutions for dealing with vulnerabilities.

Whether you are a huge enterprise like Equifax, a small neighborhood storefront or even an individual at home, this is a very important security step that everybody should take.

Hackers are always exploring computer security measures to find and exploit weaknesses. In reaction, security software manufacturers are constantly developing patches and software updates to eliminate threats as they are discovered. If your IT department doesn’t stay diligent, these known weaknesses remain like open doors inviting criminals into your business.

Identify what firewalls, anti-spam, antivirus, antimalware and antispyware software the IT department may have installed company-wide and always insure updates are being installed as they are made available.

Additionally, don’t ever attempt to download any software (security or otherwise) without visiting trusted review sites and researching its legitimacy. Otherwise, you may accidentally download software designed for the purpose of stealing information or damaging computers within your network.

What Victims of the Equifax Breach Can Do

It’s always a good idea to regularly check your credit report to see if any suspicious activity has occurred without your knowledge. If you do see an unauthorized item, immediately call and file a report with your financial institution. You should also file a police report.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers more information for individuals who need assistance or are looking for more information.

Additional Cybersecurity Threats

Unpatched software and operating systems are not the only weaknesses that hackers exploit. The different types of malicious attacks are far too numerous to list here, but these are a few common methods.

Ransomware

Ransomware is a growing, dangerous trend in which hackers slip malicious code into an unknowing computer user’s system. The code is used to encrypt the computer’s contents, which will only be unlocked if the user pays the demanded ransom.

Phishing

A lot of people are fooled every day by email messages that look genuine, but aren’t. A phishing attempt uses an email message that looks like it comes from someone you know or from a familiar company. It may even appear to be sent directly from a friend’s email address that has been hacked. Inside the message are links that look normal and inviting, but actually lead to disastrous consequences such as:

  • Download malware onto your computer that allows a hacker to access your data
  • Direct you to a website that looks exactly like a site you trust, such as Gmail, Paypal or your bank website, but is actually a fake page designed to collect your login information

Learn how to identify phishing attempts and how to protect yourself.

Fake Wireless Access Points

Ever use your laptop to jump online at a coffee shop or hotel using free public Wi-Fi? Do your employees and co-workers do this when they travel for business with devices that hold private company data?

It’s risky and here’s why:

A hacker who is connected to the internet through a legitimate wireless access point (WAP) can easily set up a fake WAP that runs through their computer using a software workaround. This fake WAP then shows up as an available free WiFi connection to the unwary victims who think they are using an internet connection.

Anyone who connects to the hacker’s fake WAP runs all of their online data through the hacker’s computer as it goes to and from the real WAP. The hacker now has access to everything being transmitted. That could include online banking transactions, passwords, credit card numbers, vacation plans, home addresses and even more personal information. And, that’s just a fraction of the data that could be stolen without victims ever knowing.

Password Attack

As you’ve probably guessed, this type of hack involves accessing a victim’s password-protected data using that victim’s real password. Here are two of the most popular ways this attack is run:

  • Dictionary attack: The hacker runs through a list of potential passwords until one works. This is why you should never use words like password or easy-to-remember numbers like 1234.
  • Brute force attack: The hacker knows the number of characters and runs through all possible character combinations, using specialized software to zip through the possibilities.

Here are twelve tips for a stronger password. Share these tips with with everyone in your company.

Four Steps to Better Company Cybersecurity

From an IT perspective, it’s safe to assume that any and all customer, employee or other personal information needs to be protected from breach or accidental exposure. In order to best maintain company-wide cybersecurity, it is important to have documented policies and procedures.

The steps you need to follow as IT regarding security policies and procedures are fairly standard, regardless of the industry you serve:

1. Risk Analysis

Risk analysis, sometimes also called gap analysis or security risk assessment, is the first step toward developing a data security policy. Security risk assessments should be conducted annually, biannually or any time something changes, such as the purchase of new equipment or expansion of company services.

The purpose of risk analysis is to understand the existing system and identify gaps in policy and potential security risks. As explained by the SANS Institute, the process should work to answer the following questions:

  • What needs to be protected?
  • Who/What are the threats and vulnerabilities?
  • What are the implications if they were damaged or lost?
  • What is the value to the organization?
  • What can be done to minimize exposure to the loss or damage?

Areas to review for proper security:

  • Workstation and server configurations
  • Physical security
  • Network infrastructure administration
  • System access controls
  • Data classification and management
  • Application development and maintenance
  • Existing and potential threats

Methods of security to review:

  • Access and authentication: access should be physically unavailable to anyone who is not authorised
  • User account management
  • Network security
  • Monitoring
  • Segregation of duties
  • Physical security
  • Employee background checks
  • Confidentiality agreements
  • Security training

Resources from the SANS Institute also give excellent instruction for conducting a thorough risk analysis for your company.

2. Development of Policies and Procedures

Based on the outcome of the risk analysis conducted, security policies and procedures for safeguarding data must be updated or, if none currently exist, written from scratch.

Identify, develop and document:

  • A comprehensive plan outlining data security policies
  • Individual staff responsibilities for maintaining data security
  • Tools to be used to minimize risks, such as security cameras, firewalls or security software
  • Guidelines concerning use of internet, intranet and extranet systems

3. Implementation

Once your company policies and procedures have been identified, planned out and documented, they need to be implemented and followed.

  • Purchase security software and other tools that have been identified as necessary
  • Update existing software and operating systems that are out-of-date
  • Conduct mandatory security training and awareness programs for all employees, and require signatures on mandatory reading materials
  • Conduct background checks of all employees
  • Vet third-party providers to be sure that they maintain and document compliant security protocols identical to or more robust than those in place within your company

4. Enforcement

Security policies and procedures can be enforced through education and penalties. You may have noticed that education falls under both implementation and enforcement. This is absolutely the most important part of your company security and must be offered continuously.

Mandatory training and awareness programs must be scheduled for employees to ensure sensitive and confidential data is protected. Be sure that anybody who might touch protected data is trained on current policies and risks, and kept current as policies are updated or new risks identified.

For example, be sure that all relevant employees are aware of email phishing scams, how to identify them, what to do if somebody thinks they may be targeted and what to do if they have become a victim, possibly exposing protected data. As new types of scams come into being, send company-wide emails detailing methods of identification and protection.

The second part of enforcement is eliminating the temptation to ignore protocols and encouraging compliance. This can be done by issuing penalties, financial or otherwise, for those who do not follow important procedures.

Thoroughness is Important for Cybersecurity

Although it may be true that the Equifax breach could have been avoided by simply updating software, it is certainly not the only big breach that has occurred and not the only type of security mistake made by businesses. If you want to avoid adding your business or your clients to the data breach stats, data security measures must be thorough.

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