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3/17/2014
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Target Breach: Where The Weak Points Were

What played out with the Target breach is another example that, in security, the technology is the easy part

I've been fascinated by the information that keeps coming out about the December Target data breach. Recent revelations by some of the people who studied the actual malware code have labeled it as absolutely unsophisticated and uninteresting -- almost amateurish. Others noted that anti-malware software that easily have stopped this attack before any damage was done.

Too bad Target didn't have any. But it did! Six months before the attack, Target had installed and tested software from FireEye (which is also used by the CIA to protect its networks). Twenty-four-hour monitoring of the system was in place to raise an alert flag to the monitoring team who, in turn, would notify Target's Security Operations Center (SOC) in Minnesota.

So what happened? The alarm was raised, the monitors notified the SOC, and the SOC ... did nothing!

The FireEye software also has an option whereby malware can be automatically removed when detected. According to various news reports, Target's security team turned off that option. Is it any wonder that Target's CIO fell on her sword and resigned in the aftermath of this debacle?

For those of us not directly affected by the breach, the scenario as it played out is just one more bullet point illustrating what I've tried to inculcate in my audiences for more than a decade: The technology is easy -- it's the people who are hard.

Consider some of the major security breaches of the past, including Societe Generale, RSA, Nat Honan, and the many phishing and spear-phishing attacks that seem to be happening almost on a weekly basis. A common thread appears in almost all of them: Technology was either in place, or available, that could have thwarted the attack. In almost all these cases, human actions not only aided the attack, but were the prime factor in the attack's success! I'm not speaking of deliberate acts to circumvent security (such as Jerome Kerviel's actions in the Societe Generale), but of inadvertent and/or accidental actions that may or may not have violated policy, but, nevertheless, violated common sense.

At Target, according to spokesperson Molly Snyder, "a small amount of the activity was logged and surfaced to our team. That activity was evaluated and acted upon. Based on their interpretation and evaluation of that activity, the team determined that it did not warrant immediate follow up."

The FireEye software raised an alert at its highest level multiple times over the course of a few days as the somewhat inept hackers kept modifying the payload they'd installed on Target's systems, Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported. The technology got it right -- the people ignored the warnings.

It should also be noted that the initial introduction of the malware to Target is being attributed to the use of credentials from a Target partner or vendor most likely obtained via a spear-phishing expedition.

It's necessary to have the right security technology in place; there's no question about that. But there really is no substitute for education -- teaching your people how to recognize potentially hazardous communications or situations and how to handle them.

It's going to take more than a memo and some "be aware" posters, though. What I'm talking about is a real education campaign with actual teaching, and perhaps some mentoring and periodic testing. The occasional "pop quiz" via a phishing-style email should be part of your proactive anti-malware campaign. Those who fail the quiz should be required to take refresher courses.

Technology can help, but only well trained, fully informed and security-aware employees can keep your organization safe.

Dave Kearns is a senior analyst for Kuppinger-Cole, Europe's leading analyst company for identity-focused information security and networking. His columns and books have provided a thorough grounding in the basic philosophies of directory technology, networking, and identity management to a generation of technologists.

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