'Honoring' CCPA's Binding Principles Nationally Won't Be Easy

Even companies with the reach, capital, and innovative capacity of Microsoft or Google will struggle to adhere to the tenets of California's new consumer privacy law.

Dr. Salvatore Stolfo, Founder & CTO, Allure Security

December 26, 2019

6 Min Read

In November, Microsoft published a blog post announcing the company's intention to "honor" the binding principles of the California Consumer Privacy Act, known as CCPA, across the US. When CCPA goes into effect in the state of California on January 1, 2020, Microsoft has committed to extending its compliance to the regulation across all US states.

CCPA is regarded by data privacy advocates as one of the most sweeping data privacy regulations in the US to date. CCPA is somewhat similar to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the data privacy law in the European Union, in that companies are required to disclose to their users what personal data of theirs is being collected, whether it is sold, and to whom. It also allows users to opt out of any sale of their data. Users must also have access to their data and be able to request that a company delete it — better known as the "right to be forgotten."

PR Stunt or Cybersecurity Leadership?
As a professor, cybersecurity researcher, and entrepreneur, I am glad to see a company the size of Microsoft acknowledge that consumer data privacy should be a greater priority in the tech industry. We have seen time and time again how companies abuse their access to customer data and fail to provide proper protection around it. (Facebook is a prime example.) It's worth noting that other large tech firms such as Apple are also speaking out and providing leadership regarding data privacy. Even Google is hearing the message with a number of initiatives to protect the privacy of its users.

While I applaud Microsoft, Google, and other companies for leading the way with ambitious data privacy policies, I also have a healthy dose of skepticism about the motivations for doing so, and also about their ability to actually execute on this. When I first read the news, my immediate reaction was: This sounds like a PR stunt to me — great in theory but doing the work will take much longer than a few weeks, which is now how long we have before CCPA goes into effect. Even a company with the reach, capital, and innovative capacity of Microsoft or Google is going to struggle to adhere to the tenets of CCPA nationally.

We have already seen this struggle with compliance to GDPR in Europe. To date, nearly half a billion euros in fines have been levied against companies that have violated GDPR. Some of these violations were flagrant abuse, such as the Dutch hospital fined because of lax controls over access to patient records. In that case, 197 hospital employees accessed a Dutch celebrity's medical records.

But in other cases, the fined company violated GDPR through lax policies of third parties or by the behaviors of their own customers. In an early Dark Reading column, I explored the ramifications of the British Airways data breach involving an orchestrated phishing campaign that compromised the personal data of almost 500,000 customers of the airline. In that instance, customers were targeted with phishing emails and were directed to spoof websites that looked enough like British Airways' real site to fool them into giving up their account credentials.

Liability for Data You Control and Behavior You Can't
In Microsoft's blog, the company states:

In addition to guaranteeing the rights of individuals to control their personal information, we believe privacy laws should be further strengthened by placing more robust accountability requirements on companies. This includes making companies minimize the data they collect about people, specify the purposes for which they are collecting and using people's data, and making them more responsible for analyzing and improving data systems to ensure that they use personal data appropriately.

By its own standards, Microsoft must take a hard look at its approach to detecting and responding to phishing campaigns if the company intends to adhere to CCPA nationwide. Microsoft websites are consistently among the most targeted by spoof websites as part of orchestrated phishing attacks. In fact, only PayPal is more frequently targeted by spoofing attacks. Additionally, phishing attacks against Microsoft Office 365 users are on the rise, and the methods used by attackers are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

In response to the proliferation of phishing attacks, Microsoft has said that users who enable multifactor authentication (MFA) for their accounts will end up blocking 99.9% of automated attacks. But as the recent YouTube phishing attack illustrates, MFA is not the savior we all hoped it would be. There are multiple tools available on the Dark Web that help hackers easily bypass MFA, without the victim ever knowing.

The Limits of MFA & SSL
Neither can one rely on SSL as a way to verify which sites are safe to visit. The latest report from the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) reveals that two-thirds of all phishing sites reported in the third quarter of 2019 were employing SSL protection. The report notes that this was the highest percentage of spoof sites using SSL since tracking began in early 2015, and "is a clear indicator that users can't rely on SSL alone to understand whether a site is safe or not."

The APWG report also reveals that SaaS and web email sites remained the biggest targets of phishing. Microsoft is one of the largest providers of these services in the world. If the company is serious about adhering to the mandates of CCPA across the country, then a stronger approach to phishing detection and response will be vital. The CCPA at its core intends to regulate companies to provide protection of their customer's data. This is easily pierced by phishers who trick users to provide access to their data at the originating website.

Companies preparing to comply with CCPA in the state of California alone, never mind deciding to expand compliance nationally, must now be able to detect phishing attacks quickly. To date, too much emphasis has been placed on the email component of the pushing attack. But filtering out suspected phishing emails doesn't go far enough. Spoof websites must be identified quickly, then taken down before they're successful at stealing customer data. Failure to do so will not only lead to fines but also damaged brand reputation and diminished customer trust.

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About the Author(s)

Dr. Salvatore Stolfo

Founder & CTO, Allure Security

Dr. Salvatore Stolfo is the founder and CTO of Allure Security. As a professor of artificial intelligence at Columbia University since 1979, Dr. Stolfo has spent a career figuring out how people think and how to make computers and systems think like people. Dr. Stolfo has been granted over 70 patents and has published over 250 papers and books in the areas of parallel computing, AI knowledge-based systems, data mining, computer security and intrusion detection systems. His research has been supported by numerous government agencies, including DARPA, NSF, ONR, IARPA, AFOSR, ARO, NIST, and DHS. He was recently elevated to IEEE Fellow for his contributions to machine learning applied to computer security.

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