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Dec 18

What the Marriott Breach Says About Security

We don’t yet know the root cause(s) that forced Marriott this week to disclose a four-year-long breach involving the personal and financial information of 500 million guests of its Starwood hotel properties. But anytime we see such a colossal intrusion go undetected for so long, the ultimate cause is usually a failure to adopt the most important principle in cybersecurity defense that applies to both corporations and consumers: Assume you are compromised.

TO COMPANIES

For companies, this principle means accepting the notion that it is no longer possible to keep the bad guys out of your networks entirely. This doesn’t mean abandoning all tenets of traditional defense, such as quickly applying software patches and using technologies to block or at least detect malware infections.

It means accepting that despite how many resources you expend trying to keep malware and miscreants out, all of this can be undone in a flash when users click on malicious links or fall for phishing attacks. Or a previously unknown security flaw gets exploited before it can be patched. Or any one of a myriad other ways attackers can win just by being right once, when defenders need to be right 100 percent of the time.

The companies run by leaders and corporate board members with advanced security maturity are investing in ways to attract and retain more cybersecurity talent, and arranging those defenders in a posture that assumes the bad guys will get in.

This involves not only focusing on breach prevention, but at least equally on intrusion detection and response. It starts with the assumption that failing to respond quickly when an adversary gains an initial foothold is like allowing a tiny cancer cell to metastasize into a much bigger illness that — left undetected for days, months or years — can cost the entire organism dearly.

The companies with the most clueful leaders are paying threat hunters to look for signs of new intrusions. They’re reshuffling the organizational chart so that people in charge of security report to the board, the CEO, and/or chief risk officer — anyone but the Chief Technology Officer.

They’re constantly testing their own networks and employees for weaknesses, and regularly drilling their breach response preparedness (much like a fire drill). And, apropos of the Marriott breach, they are finding creative ways to cut down on the volume of sensitive data that they need to store and protect.

TO INDIVIDUALS

Likewise for individuals, it pays to accept two unfortunate and harsh realities:

Reality #1: Bad guys already have access to personal data points that you may believe should be secret but which nevertheless aren’t, including your credit card information, Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, date of birth, address, previous addresses, phone number, and yes — even your credit file.

Reality #2: Any data point you share with a company will in all likelihood eventually be hacked, lost, leaked, stolen or sold — usually through no fault of your own. And if you’re an American, it means (at least for the time being) your recourse to do anything about that when it does happen is limited or nil.

Marriott is offering affected consumers a year’s worth of service from a company owned by security firm Kroll that advertises the ability to scour cybercrime underground markets for your data. Should you take them up on this offer? It probably can’t hurt as long as you’re not expecting it to prevent some kind of bad outcome. But once you’ve accepted Realities #1 and #2 above it becomes clear there is nothing such services could tell you that you don’t already know.

Once you’ve owned both of these realities, you realize that expecting another company to safeguard your security is a fool’s errand, and that it makes far more sense to focus instead on doing everything you can to proactively prevent identity thieves, malicious hackers or other ne’er-do-wells from abusing access to said data.

This includes assuming that any passwords you use at one site will eventually get hacked and leaked or sold online (see Reality #2), and that as a result it is an extremely bad idea to re-use passwords across multiple Web sites. For example, if you used your Starwood password anywhere else, that other account you used it at is now at a much higher risk of getting compromised.

By the way, if you are the type of person who likes to re-use passwords, then you definitely need to be using a password manager, which helps you pick and remember strong passwords/passphrases and essentially lets you use the same strong master password/passphrase across all Web sites.

Theassume you’re compromised” philosophy involves freezing your credit files with the major credit bureaus, and regularly ordering free copies of your credit file from annualcreditreport.com to make sure nobody is monkeying with your credit (except you).

It means planting your flag at various online services before fraudsters do it for you, such as at the Social Security Administration, U.S. Postal Service, Internal Revenue Service, your mobile provider, and your Internet service provider (ISP).

Assuming compromise means placing very little trust or confidence in anything that comes to you via email. In the context of this Marriott/Starwood breach, for example, consider all the data points that attackers may now have to make a phishing or malware attack more likely to be successful: Your Starwood account number, your address, phone number, email address, passport number, dates and times of your reservations, and credit card information.

How hard would it be for someone to craft an email that warns of a problem with a recent reservation or with your Starwood account, urging you to click a booby trapped link or attachment to learn more? Now imagine that such targeted emails can come from any brand with whom you’ve done business (for a refresher, see Reality #2 above).

Assuming you’re compromised means beefing up your passwords by adopting more robust multi-factor authentication — and perhaps even transitioning away from SMS/text messages for multifactor toward more secure app- or key-based options.

TOUGH TRADE-OFFS

If the advice above sounds inconvenient, unfair and expensive for all involved, congratulations: You are well on your way to internalizing Realities #1 and #2. For better or worse, being a savvy consumer means constantly having to make difficult trade-offs between security, privacy, and convenience.

Oh, and you generally only get to pick two out of three of these qualities. Same goes for the trio of high-speed, high-quality, and low-cost. Or good, fast, and cheap. Again, pick two. You get the idea.

Unfortunately, these transactions become even more lopsided and difficult to weigh when one party to them always selects the same trade-off (e.g., fast, low-cost, and convenient). Right now, it sure seems like there aren’t a lot of consequences when huge companies that ought to know better screw up massively on security, leaving consumers and their paying customers to clean up the mess.

I don’t know how many more big-time privacy and security debacles we need to convince our nation’s leaders that perhaps we should enshrine in law some basic standards of care for how companies handle and secure consumer data, and what rights and expectations consumers should have when companies fail to meet those standards. Because it’s clear that unless and until this happens, some subset of businesses out there will continue to make the most expedient and short-sighted trade-offs available to them, regardless of the impact to their customers and the public at large.

On this point, as with many others related to Internet security and privacy, I found it hard to argue with the opinion of my home state Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), who observed:

“It seems like every other day we learn about a new mega-breach affecting the personal data of millions of Americans. Rather than accepting this trend as the new normal, this latest incident should strengthen Congress’ resolve. We must pass laws that require data minimization, ensuring companies do not keep sensitive data that they no longer need. And it is past time we enact data security laws that ensure companies account for security costs rather than making their consumers shoulder the burden and harms resulting from these lapses.”

78 comments

  1. “can cost the entire organism dearly”

    I think you meant “organization”

  2. Thinking about picking 2 of 3 from “security, privacy, and convenience”: What would secure and convenient, but not private, look like?

    I ask because security and privacy aren’t orthogonal — lack of security often results in a loss of privacy, for example.

    • A company can have excellent security, protecting your data from malicious hackers. It can also sell that data to friendly customers. Oh, you didn’t see that in the fine print???

      Another possibility: some companies that claim to anonymize your data probably fail. We’ve all heard stories about finding clever ways to trace anonymized data to its owner.

    • I think Google is a good example of getting security and convenience at the cost of privacy. Google is better at security than I am, so I trust their email and OAUTH services. This means that Google gets to read my email and know what services I use them to log into.

  3. The government is no better than the large companies. Some of the biggest hacks have been against the US government. And sometimes for more sensitive data than someones SSN or bdate. So to have them legislate a “solution” is asking for more trouble. If you want a quote, how about Benjamin Franklin, “Those who give up security for freedom will have neither”.

    What companies understand is money and risk management. If a breach becomes very expensive, it is more likely to be defended against. So if lawyers are able to sue for billions, that will cause companies to take notice. Especially if it can be proven that the executives knew about the problem and did nothing. Then they can be personally sued.

    Right now, most companies see the risk as paying for a year of credit watch. Make it a serious risk to the bottom line and major payouts to the victims and you would see some change.

    • Dave in Flagstaff

      Bob,
      Your “Benjamin Franklin” quote is nowhere near accurate and is quite misleading – a contextomy!
      This is the actual quote:
      “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
      To paraphrase (the MANY paraphrased derivatives): Those that give up freedom for security deserve neither. I would gladly give up the supposed security of today’s government for true liberty and freedom,,,, but never the other way around.
      I do apologize for my diatribe; the misquoted quote hit me the wrong way in the political climate of today.

      • Fun fact: The quotation was taken from a letter about taxes in Pennsylvania, not privacy rights or civil liberties.

  4. @David: “What would secure and convenient, but not private, look like?”

    Google and Amazon come to mind. Both are security-savvy companies that write pretty solid code and are hard for unauthorized parties to subvert, and are very user-friendly. Both also monetize your behavior extensively.

  5. I’m actually hoping the EU GDPR will see an equivalent in the US.

    Actually, many companies operating worldwide already implemented GDPR everywhere since it’s actually harder to separate EU customers from the rest than just following those good practice globally.

    No more excel customer database sheets in the cloud with no protection .. who would not want that ?

  6. Hey Brian, thanks for another great article. Just a point to add – I went to the annualcreditreport.com website and found that both experian and equifax are NOT accepting online requests for credit reports and instead pointed me to a form to fill out, print, and submit via snail mail. How convenient! Thanks for trying to provide us a resource

  7. Digital success and failure starts at the top of corporate America. Boards need digital and cyber skills to adequately oversee these issues.

    Marriott lacked digital diversity on it’s board. The regulators are coming, and it could be Sarbanes ugly, but given the inability for corporations to adequately protect the public interest on this issue, that’s what they get. Companies can do a few simple things:

    1. Get a cyber director (and digital) onto the board
    2. Organize board digital oversight through a tech and cyber committee, e.g., FedEx
    3. Adopt one of the many digital governance frameworks and apply it.

    Bob

  8. It’s nice that Mark Warner could say the right thing for once.

  9. Actually, the true story isn’t that the hackers had control over the Starwood infrastructure over four years, but that Starwood has such crap infrastructure that the hackers got in but got lost, and took four years to find their way out again, with the data…

  10. One of the best articles ever written on the subject of personal privacy. Well done.

  11. The impression from these comments and from Brian’s article is that companies are incompetent and that’s why they don’t safeguard information. I disagree.

    These decision makers in the top are extremely good at what rewards them. More sales means bonus? Let’s push sales. New product by Q3? Let’s hire PMs and have a daily status call, and fire whoever delays the project. Now- What incentive they have to invest in security? The fines, if any, are minimal. How many stopped buying at Target or Home Depot because their credit card got stolen?

  12. Freezing your credit reports and “planting your flag” at Social Security are both good ideas — but it turns out you can’t create an online account with Social Security if your credit is frozen.

  13. FWIW You will have to leave access to your Equifax report open while you set up your online Social Security Account. The SSA uses Equifax during the verification process.

  14. What is a good way to go about protecting your identity if your residence and likely all your comm channels aren’t secure, and may even be worse than that?

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