People being people equals lots of data breaches

Lisa R. Lifshitz
Verizon has just published its 2016 Data Breach Investigation Report and as always it makes for compelling, if grim, reading.

In preparation for this publication, Verizon reviewed more than 100,000 incidents (reported by a plethora of technology companies, law firms, government agencies, and insurance companies, as well as through its own investigations), of which 3,141 were confirmed data breaches.

The report yielded several interesting trends. Not surprisingly, most data breaches are about money — thieves stealing data because of its value.

Sixty-three per cent of confirmed data breaches involved leveraging weak, default, or stolen passwords, proving that data thieves will exploit vulnerabilities to take the easiest route.

Phishing continues to trend upward. People seemingly just can’t help clicking on authentic-sounding “click here to reset your banking password” e-mails. For example, Verizon found 30 per cent of phishing messages were opened, unfortunately an increase from 23 per cent in 2014. Twelve per cent then proceeded to open the malicious attachment or click the link, no doubt to their peril.

Overall, 95 per cent of breaches, and 86 per cent of incidents across all industries, predictably fell into nine identified patterns:
•    miscellaneous errors (17.7 per cent),
•    insider and privilege misuse (16.3 per cent),
•    physical theft and loss (15.1 per cent),
•    denial of service (15 per cent),
•    crimeware (12.4 per cent),
•    web app attacks (8.3 per cent),
•    point-of-sale intrusions (0.8 per cent),
•    cyber-espionage (0.4 per cent),
•    and payment card skimmers (0.2 per cent).
•    The bucket “everything else” category covered 13.8 per cent.

Interestingly, many of the data breaches reported were not caused by super-secret and sophisticated Mission Impossible-style attacks involving hacking or the wearing of black ninja gear while scaling walls. Instead, many breaches fall into what I think of as the “people are people” category — highlighting human greed/avarice and our basic capacity to make dumb mistakes.

Consider the classic data breaches caused by disgruntled insiders or by “that guy you fired but forgot to disable his remote access” (as Verizon charmingly put it) but also by organized crime soliciting insiders to provide banking information.

Insider and privilege misuse incidents can be deadly because they are often the hardest and take the longest to detect of all data breaches (involving months and years). Verizon found almost a third of these insiders were found to be end users who have access to sensitive data as a requirement to do their jobs, with only a small percentage (14 per cent) in leadership roles (executive or other management) or in roles with elevated access privilege jobs such as system administrators or developers.

Companies should thus worry less about job titles but more about the level of access their employees have. Money appears again to the prime motivator (34 per cent) for these inside jobs, although one quarter of these breaches can be linked with espionage and theft of intellectual property. The health care and public sector industries are particularly vulnerable.

Privilege misuse involves accessing data to gain information for alternative and unsanctioned uses, everything from mailing sensitive information or uploading to a sharing service to uploading data to unapproved hardware such as USB drives or hand-held skimmers (used by food servers to capture diners’ payment card data).

Think of snooping bank tellers or those hospital workers who sell celebrity medical records for cash.

To prevent against insider and privilege misuse, Verizon recommends entities have a robust understanding of who has access to sensitive data and where the data actually resides.

Access should be limited to a need-to-know basis. Subject to employment law considerations, companies should also track their employees’ systems usage —particularly access to data that can be used for financial gain. Access should also be revoked immediately when contractors and employees leave their organizations.

Leaving aside the malicious employees, one should also not discount the impact of “miscellaneous errors,” unintentional actions, or mistakes that compromise security, including loss of assets.

For example, 40 per cent of the incidents tracked in the report were caused by shortages in server capacity when non-malicious spikes in web traffic overwhelmed systems and caused key applications to crash through no personal fault.

But what about the 26 per cent of miscellaneous errors caused by individuals sending e-mails or documents to the wrong recipients? Having a bad day and inadvertently publishing confidential information to the entire Internet? And, of course, the newspaper-worthy errors involving improper disposal of documents (digital or otherwise) or failing to wipe hard drives before they are trashed or resold, resulting in the sale of hardware containing personal information or other sensitive data.

Painful as it may be, companies should keep a record of common errors that can be used for training purposes and put in place more effective internal controls to ensure, for example, that hardware is not resold without confirming that necessary data wiping occurred.

While Verizon classified “physical theft and loss” separately, I saw it as a close cousin to the “miscellaneous errors” school of forgetfulness and human error.

Think about incidents involving laptops left in parked cars or left behind in public parks. Some incidents still involve malice, i.e. physical theft remains common — 39 per cent of theft is from the victim’s own work area and 34 per cent from employees’ personal vehicles.

The research shows, however, that items such as laptops are lost 100 times more frequently than stolen.

At a minimum, companies should always encrypt their devices so if they do get lost or stolen it will be more difficult for hackers to access lost data. Additional training should also be given to employees/contractors involving physical security of corporate assets to make this and other best practices regarding the importance of security stick (i.e. cars are never appropriate places to leave corporate laptops).

Also, companies should resist the urge to print out and transport all of their sensitive data to avoid such data being lost, stolen, or compromised.

What are the quick takeaways? Verizon offered a summary of common-sense, practical points intended to help mitigate/prevent data breaches. These include:

(i)    Be vigilant: Log files and change management systems can give you early warning of a breach.
(ii)   Make people your first line of defence: Train staff to spot the warning signs.
(iii)  Only keep data on a need-to-know basis: Only staff who need access to systems to do their jobs should have it.
(iv)  Patch promptly: This could guard against many attacks.
(v)   Encrypt sensitive data: Make your data next to useless if it is stolen.
(vi)  Use two-factor authentication: This can limit the damage that can be done with lost or stolen credentials; and
(vii)    Don’t forget physical security: Not all data theft happens online.

I applaud Verizon for producing this useful and practical report, but absent radical changes in human behaviour, I remain skeptical as to whether there will be much improvement seen in next year’s publication. Fingers crossed.


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