Organizations Rarely Report Breaches to Law Enforcement

Meanwhile, FBI says it's making the process more private and more of a two-way street

Most organizations hit by breaches that don't require public disclosure don't call in law enforcement -- they consider it an exposure risk, with little chance of their gaining any intelligence from investigators about the attack, anyway.

FBI director Robert Mueller has acknowledged this dilemma facing organizations that get hacked, noting in a speech at the RSA Conference last month that disclosing breaches to the FBI is the exception and not the rule today. But the FBI will protect victim organization's privacy, data, and will share what information it can from its investigation, he said, rather than continue with the mostly one-way sharing that organizations traditionally have experienced when dealing with the FBI.

Gary Terrell, president of the Bay Area CSO Council and CISO at Adobe, says different companies have their own rules about reporting to law enforcement. "[Many] won't talk to law enforcement without an NDA [non-disclosure agreement]," says Terrell, who was speaking on behalf of the Council. "The FBI has a hard time signing it. That hasn't been successful so far, so sharing with the FBI has been minimal."

He says the feds have their own communications "protocol" for sharing classified information, but they don't have a standard and confidential way to work with the private sector on breach investigations. And until the feds can work with NDAs, there won't be much back-and-forth between companies and these agencies about breaches, he predicts.

Acting deputy assistant director for the FBI's Cyber Division Jeffrey Troy says it helps the attackers if companies aren't disclosing breaches to the FBI or law enforcement. "We are most concerned with gathering that information and sharing it with everyone else [affected] so we can harden the systems," Troy says. "If you are not telling us you have been penetrated ... that [may be] another attack vector we can't protect everyone else from.

"It's to the advantage of the bad guys if you don't share that information. We're trying to get people to understand that."

Troy says the bureau has had breach cases where it collected evidence of attackers getting into hundreds of companies. "They [the victims] hadn't come to us and told us, but we found the evidence because we caught the hacker that did it. You may not come to me, but it's likely I'm going to come to you."

Security experts and forensics investigators say the best way to defend against targeted attacks as well as other breaches and help unmask who's behind them is to gather and correlate attack information among various victims. Connecting the dots also helps companies defend against similar types of attacks. The unprecedented voluntary disclosure earlier this year by Google, Adobe, and later, Intel, that they were victims of targeted attacks out of China demonstrated how victims can benefit from collaboration with one another and law enforcement. But security experts say Google and Adobe's disclosures were an anomaly rather than a trend.

Companies hit by breaches where customer information or credit and debit card numbers weren't exposed aren't necessarily required by law to go public about the hacks. So rather than suffer bad PR or stock market ramifications, they merely keep quiet. JC Penney, for instance, reportedly fought but ultimately lost its bid to keep its name secret in the recent trail of convicted Heartland Payment Systems hacker Albert Gonzalez. While JC Penney's computer system had been breached, prosecutors said the government didn't have evidence that any payment card numbers were taken. Wet Seal was another retailer also hit by the attackers, but there was no evidence card numbers were taken from its system, either.

Those companies that do voluntarily report attacks to law enforcement sometimes suffer productivity issues as well as worries of bad publicity. Some that have voluntarily tried to work with law enforcement have had their data centers confiscated, hampering their day-to-day operations while the FBI finishes its investigation.

"We've seen where the FBI has gone in and cleaned out data centers. How do these companies recover?" says Patricia Titus, chief information security officer for Unisys Federal Systems and former CISO for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). "They need to get back up and running versus protecting forensics data" for the FBI, she says.

"Where's the incentive" for reporting to the FBI? Titus says. "Companies are in business to make money and stay up and functioning."

Page 2: What The FBI Will Share Another challenge for victim organizations is knowing who to call if they do decide to report a breach: local law enforcement, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, or who? National cybersecurity coordinator Howard Schmidt earlier this month said he's looking at ways to provide companies information on who to contact when an incident occurs and how to protect their intellectual property. Schmidt said companies today don't have a central point of contact for reporting breach events.

So just what kind of information might the FBI supply victim organizations if they report breaches to the bureau? The FBI's Troy says the bureau recently discovered a group of attackers targeting financial institutions and informed the financial services industry of the attackers' methods. A bank later approached the bureau after finding evidence that attackers had infiltrated their systems. "We had a bank come back to us after they were patching and found evidence that attackers were trying to exploit that vulnerability," Troy says. "This two-way sharing has increased. We consider it a critical part of our mission."

Troy says the FBI is focused on identifying a threat and eliminating it. "The FBI in the last couple of years, led by the Director, has made a huge change in the way we do business ... In the past, we'd be talking about the biggest case, how it's going, and if we arrested someone yet," Troy says. Now "it's not necessarily did you put someone in jail, but did you do something to reduce the threat," he says.

But for now, most organizations are more comfortable with grass-roots, confidential efforts for sharing their attack experiences and information, such as The Bay Area CSO Council, for example, where CSOs confidentially share attack data among one another.

Unisys' Titus says these grass-roots efforts seem to work better. And it's still unclear just how the feds could coordinate a breach reporting process: "Even if we start reporting these types of activities, who's going to track them?" Titus says.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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