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8 Lessons From Nortel's 10-Year Security Breach

Learn from Nortel's missteps. Security experts warn that more businesses have been hit by ongoing, difficult to detect exploits.

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It is every corporate security manager's worst nightmare.

News surfaced this week that Nortel's network was hacked in 2000, after which attackers enjoyed access to the telecommunications and networking company's secrets for 10 years.

The intrusions reportedly began after attackers used passwords stolen from the company's CEO, as well as six other senior executives, together with spyware. By 2004, a Nortel employee did detect unusual download patterns associated with senior executives' accounts, and changed related passwords. The security team also began watching for signs of suspicious activity, but apparently stopped doing so after a few months. The full extent of the breach wasn't discovered until 2010, by which time hackers had been accessing Nortel secrets--from technical papers and business plans, to research reports and employees' emails--for nearly a decade.

"This is a clear case of a total failure of an information security program and should be a wakeup call for other corporations," said Chris Mark, principal of the Mark Consulting Group, on the Global Security & Risk Management blog.

What should Nortel have done differently, and what can information security professionals learn from this example?

1. Don't Treat Nortel As The Exception. If there's one takeaway from the Nortel breach, it's that the advanced persistent threat is alive and well. "One of the main goals of the so-called APT is in fact its persistence. During recent years we have been seeing a lot of companies publicly reporting breaches, and the number is increasing steeply," said Jaime Blasco, manager of AlienVault Labs, via email. Without a doubt, data breaches now seem so common as to be banal. But what if APTs are just as prevalent, yet even less frequently spotted?

2. Keep Proving You're Not Nortel. Unfortunately, "low and slow" attacks that keep a low profile--so as to facilitate long-term data theft--are extremely difficult to detect, and thus tough to stop. "Although Nortel is in the headlines, this type of attack could be occurring undetected at other companies," said Mike Logan, president of Axis Technology, via email. Accordingly, businesses need to ensure that they have the right policies and procedures in place to help block such attacks, as well as to spot them when they happen.

3. Create A Robust Information Security Program. Blocking low-and-slow attacks requires a robust information security program, backed by the right technology. "Organizations need to ensure they have the proper tools at the perimeter and within their networks, and aggressive monitoring to detect outbound traffic and suspicious activity in the event of a breach," said Neil Roiter, director of research for Corero Network Security, via email. "The Aurora attacks, the RSA breach, and others demonstrate that Fortune 500 companies and other large enterprises are under constant threat from nation states such as China seeking shortcuts to technological advances."

4. Expect Defenses To Fail. Still, an information security program won't be completely effective all of the time. "Nowadays companies spend a lot of money placing prevention mechanisms such as antivirus, intrusion prevention systems, firewalls, and so on. When you are dealing with targeted attacks, these systems will eventually fail," said AlienVault's Blasco. "You often need a dedicated team that monitors the network and systems with advance tools to detect persistent and advanced threats. Companies should accept that they can be compromised and [invest in] detection and forensic tools and processes."

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AustinIT
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AustinIT,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/20/2012 | 5:01:24 PM
re: 8 Lessons From Nortel's 10-Year Security Breach
How bad?

A ten year ongoing breach is about as bad (and embarrasing) as it gets...
Bprince
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Bprince,
User Rank: Ninja
2/18/2012 | 2:21:33 AM
re: 8 Lessons From Nortel's 10-Year Security Breach
@readers: How badly did Nortel drop the ball in its investigation in your opinion?
Brian Prince, InformationWeek/Dark Reading Comment Moderator
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