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.
5. Don't Fail To Investigate Data Breaches. One of Nortel's errors was underestimating attackers, and how they might have gained ongoing access to the corporate network. "Had Nortel done an extended search for malicious activity, it would have found the points of malicious activity, which allowed the hackers access for an additional six years," said Axis Technology's Logan. Perhaps, but then even security giant Symantec recently said that it hadn't realized that attackers had stolen some of the code base for its flagship Norton AntiVirus during a 2006 breach. Obviously, data breach investigations aren't easy.

6. Conduct A Thorough Forensic Analysis. Likewise, don't expect breach investigations to be cheap. But short-term savings--skimping on conducting a thorough forensic analysis after a breach, for example--can have long-term repercussions, as Nortel discovered. "The ultimate irony is that the reason that most companies do not complete extended breach scans is the price, which the CEOs and CFOs are reluctant to green-light," said Logan. "However, if one looks at the financial and other fallout from this type of breach--fines, compliance issues, loss of customer trust, and damage to the brand--this type of intensive breach prevention makes sense."

7. Expect Greater Accountability Nortel executives notably failed to disclose the breach, even to potential buyers of the company or its assets. But according to Corero's Roiter, "We expect that the new SEC guidelines will result in more disclosures, such as the recent revelation of the VeriSign breach in 2010." Notably, VeriSign's SEC filing revealed that the company had suffered a data breach that may have compromised critical information relating to the Internet's domain name system. Accordingly, executives who want to avoid having to report these types of breaches should invest in "aggressive monitoring to detect outbound traffic and suspicious activity in the event of a breach," he said.

8. Defend Against More Than China. Was the attack against Nortel executed by someone with ties to China? That's possible, but for corporate information security programs, does the answer even matter? "It's very hard to prove a Chinese involvement. Yes, the data might have been transmitted to an IP address based in Shanghai, but it is possible that a computer in Shanghai has been compromised by, say, a remote hacker in Belgium," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, in a blog post "But let's not be naive. Of course, there are Chinese hackers. But there are also British hackers, and South African hackers, and Canadian hackers, and Italian hackers," he said. In other words, anyone from nation states to malicious insiders could be trying to steal your business's data. Be prepared.