3 Lessons From Heartland Breach The Second Time Around

While not even a drop in the bucket compared to its last breach, Heartland's exposure this week does offer some lessons to the security community.

This week Heartland Payment Systems sent out breach notification letters to people potentially affected by a burglary at a Heartland Payroll office in California that resulted in the theft of unencrypted computers containing personally identifiable information (PII). Coming six years after the company's record-setting breach of over 100 million debit and credit cards, this latest incident is suspected by Heartland to have exposed the PII of just 2,200 people that was contained in four out of 11 computers stolen during the heist. While this is just a drop in the bucket volume-wise compared to its previous incident, there are still some immediate lessons to be learned about this breach based on what we know so far.

Physical Security Matters To Infosec

Most people in infosec may only fixate on logical security, but the physical world matters.

"Although many companies invest heavily in their security programs, particularly after a breach, to help secure their networks from remote hackers, many of the security controls they implement go out the window once a device is stolen," says Ken Westin, senior security analyst for Tripwire. "In my experience working with law enforcement on several cases where systems were stolen from offices, systems such as servers and desktops are unfortunately often left unencrypted, with a belief that they are secure as they do not leave the building."  

According to Westin, while thieves targeting offices are usually more concerned with fencing hardware than stealing data, the difficulty for organizing like Heartland is they can't really know the motivation of the criminals unless they're caught. Unlike network break-ins, there's no digital forensics breadcrumbs to follow. And, without the right audit tools in place, it is also difficult to know after the fact whether the devices complied with company policies, such as possessing full-disk encryption.


Encryption Should Be A Gimme

Speaking of encryption, this is yet another example of why full-disk encryption is so important for breach risk mitigation.

“The news of this breach of Heartland Payment Systems underscores again a need that should be a requirement -- that all sensitive data must be encrypted with the deepest encryption available on the market," says Richard Blech, CEO of Secure Channels. "Had the desktop machines carrying the PII data been encrypted, there would be no concern over the abuse and misuse of that data and only the authentic, authorized person would have been able to access and decrypt this information."

Acquisitions Often Add Risk

To be fair, Heartland does have an encryption policy in place and says that most of its computers today are encrypted—excepting those being integrated from formerly acquired companies.

Heartland reports that the office that was burgled was formerly Ovation Payroll and "is in the process of being integrated into Heartland’s information security and physical security systems and processes."

The rub is that this acquisition in question occurred two-and-a-half years ago. Heartland's statement says it is "actively working to encrypt any remaining computers in every office that may have access to, or house PII or payment data," but the lesson here is that companies that don't move swiftly after an acquisition to impose new security tools and processes on less mature acquisition targets could end up burned in that transition period.



About the Author(s)

Ericka Chickowski, Contributing Writer

Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.

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