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Sony Says PlayStation Credit Card Data Was Encrypted -- Security Experts Say, 'So What?'

PlayStation account-holder data likely still at risk

As events unfold around the PlayStation Network data breach that exposed personally identifiable information for 77 million accounts, Sony has announced that it did encrypt credit card data contained within the database accessed by hackers. But many security experts believe that wasn't nearly enough protection to fully safeguard consumer data, and that the incident is a good example of how the compliance-centric security focus endemic to the enterprise keeps a lot of information at risk.

[UPDATE: Sony said it has temporarily taken offline its and Sony Online Entertainment sites after "an issue" the company discovered while investigating the hack into its PlayStation Network.]

In a blog post on April 28, Sony said that all relevant credit card information attached to the breached records was encrypted. "The entire credit card table was encrypted, and we have no evidence that credit card data was taken," wrote Sony. "While all credit card information stored in our systems is encrypted and there is no evidence at this time that credit card data was taken, we cannot rule out the possibility."

Security experts believe that the lack of details around this announcement shows that consumers could still be at risk of this data being used by whoever hacked Sony. Word of the hack came earlier this week.

"They're not certain credit card data wasn't lost," says Phil Lieberman, CEO of Lieberman Software. "The only statement they made was that credit card data was encrypted, which is a requirement of PCI."

And even if that data was fully shielded from prying eyes, the other data definitely exposed by the breach should be plenty enough to raise a lot of concerns.

"In a way, it is bigger than it looks," says Jon Heimerl, director of strategic security for Solutionary. "When they start getting passwords, security questions, addresses, and the other types of information they got, that exposes consumers to a lot of vulnerabilities and issues not just at the Sony site, but elsewhere as well."

The Sony breach is just one of a growing list of hacks involving nonregulated data that are starting to raise eyebrows among security and privacy experts, including the Epsilon breach that most recently caused an uproar. According to Gretchen Hellman, vice president of marketing and product management for Vormetric, many organizations such as Sony only use encryption to protect very specific credit card data as laid out by PCI. That's leaving a lot of other very valuable information easily within reach of motivated hackers, Hellman says.

"A lot of organizations have narrowed down the view to a single data type, believing that that will be easier and performance will be better," she explains. "However, we really need to go back to a risk-based approach because it's an arms race as that data gets harder to breach, [and] there's other data that's not regulated that's very valuable. So organizations really need to take a look at massive data stores these are definitely becoming more and more of a target."

Besides, Hellman says, encryption solutions have advanced to the point where the wholesale encryption of massive data stores is not as impossible as it was years ago. "With advances in encryption techniques, it can actually be faster and easier just to encrypt the entire database contents, and then that provides a good layer of protection with your whole database defense in depth strategy for all that data," she says.

Lieberman says that even without encryption, Sony should have had measures in place to prevent such large-scale exfiltration of data in the first place.

"It's unforgivable because the databases can protect themselves against this, but they chose not to implement any kind of anti-siphoning technology or any form of data loss protection," he says. "The issue is you never should be allowed to have that much data retrieved at one time. If so much data is extracted at one time from one address, there are systems that will detect that and shut down the connection immediately. So shame on them."

According to Solutionary's Heimerl, this breach also offers some very basic security lessons about the nature of business growth as balanced by security concerns.

"I think the PlayStation Network grew faster than Sony initially thought it would, so you could guess in that there were probably places where the system admins and network people took some shortcuts for the sake of operational support and keeping the network up, and maybe [they] took some shortcuts in what they should have done for data security," he says. "We should always balance operational perfection on one end of the spectrum with good, strong security at the other end of the spectrum."

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