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Attacks/Breaches

Target Ignored Data Breach Alarms

Target's security team reviewed -- and ignored -- urgent warnings from threat-detection tool about unknown malware spotted on the network.

Target confirmed Friday that the hack attack against the retailer's point-of-sale (POS) systems that began in late November triggered alarms, which its information security team evaluated and chose to ignore.

"Like any large company, each week at Target there are a vast number of technical events that take place and are logged. Through our investigation, we learned that after these criminals entered our network, a small amount of their activity was logged and surfaced to our team," said Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder via email. "That activity was evaluated and acted upon."

Unfortunately, however, the security team appears to have made the wrong call. "Based on their interpretation and evaluation of that activity, the team determined that it did not warrant immediate follow up," she said. "With the benefit of hindsight, we are investigating whether, if different judgments had been made, the outcome may have been different."

[Collaboration with competitors may be the key to slowing security threats. See Retail Industry May Pool Intel To Stop Breaches.]

Target arguably wasn't breached because it failed to invest in proper information security defenses. In fact, Snyder said the company had "invested hundreds of millions of dollars in data security, had a robust system in place, and had recently been certified as PCI-compliant." Likewise, the retailer apparently heeded multiple warnings from US-CERT -- part of the Department of Homeland Security -- about the increasing threat of POS-malware attacks against retailers.

Unusually for a retailer, Target was even running its own security operations center in Minneapolis, according to a report published Thursday by Bloomberg Businessweek. Among its security defenses, following a months-long testing period and May 2013 implementation, was software from attack-detection firm FireEye, which caught the initial November 30 infection of Target's payment system by malware. All told, up to five "malware.binary" alarms reportedly sounded, each graded at the top of FireEye's criticality scale, and which were seen by Target's information security teams first in Bangalore, and then Minneapolis.

Image credit: Jay Reed on Flickr.
Image credit: Jay Reed on Flickr.

When reviewing Target's log files, digital forensic investigators also found the November 30 alerts, as well as multiple alerts from December 2, all of which tied to attackers installing multiple versions of their malware -- with the alerts including details for the external servers to which data was being sent -- Bloomberg Businessweek reported. Later on December 2, attackers began siphoning 40 million credit and debit card numbers from POS terminals, as well as personal information on 70 million customers. Ultimately, they exfiltrated at least 11 GB of data, according to Aviv Raff, CTO of Israel-based cybersecurity technology company Seculert, which found one of three FTP servers to which the data was sent. From there, the data was transferred to a server hosted by Russian-based hosting service vpsville.ru.

Obviously, had Target's security team reacted differently, they might have contained what turned into a massive data breach. But the security team didn't even have to be in the loop. The FireEye software could have been set

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Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014. View Full Bio

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Somedude8
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Somedude8,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/14/2014 | 1:01:57 PM
Re: Target Security team is inexperienced and or incompetent.
I am not so sure that IP filtering would have helped at with the infiltration, since the penetration vector was through a contractor, unless that HVAC contractor was in the blacklist, in which case they wouldn't have been able to do their jobs. IP filtering would of course not help with exfilatration.

This development really highlights the growing difficulty of filtering the signal from the noise in an age of exponentially expanding volume of data. Its like many of us are falling in to the same trap that amateur website owners often do: If everything is in all caps, people will read everything because all caps means its important right? I would not be at all surprised if the same people that evaluated the alarm mentioned in the article were also monitoring alarms from countless workstations and who knows what else. Doesn't surprise me at all that this got lost in the shuflle. But it still terrifies me!

This also underscores the near uselessness of the PCI spec. It is not a something to use to avoid a breach, its something to use to reduce the chance of a lawsuit. "Hey! We were PCI compliant! Its not our fault!"
JoeS149
100%
0%
JoeS149,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/14/2014 | 12:35:59 PM
Target Security team is inexperienced and or incompetent.
A competent IT and security individual  would have been in code red attempting to stop the attack. The fact the target "security team" did not recognize the threat shows a lack of technical understanding and/or experieence.

It has been a number of years  since I have done system security however a simple  thing to do is filter out all IP addresses outside of the needed range. Certain  countries(i.e. China, Russia) have been threats for years and years. The Target "security team" didn't understand this?


On the positive side, maybe now the non-tech world which is using technology to make money will spend more money on better security.
DarrenM555
50%
50%
DarrenM555,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/14/2014 | 12:20:45 PM
They ignored it?
Between this and the "thigh gap" fiasco, it's a wonder they keep any customers. I don't shop there very often but I'll certainly think twice about giving them any of my hard-earned money in the future.
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