On the morning of Sept. 7, 2017, US credit bureau giant Equifax announced hackers had infiltrated its network and exfiltrated customer names, Social Security numbers, birthdates, and addresses. The news of the breach — which compromised the private records of 147.9 million Americans (almost 50% of the entire US population), 15.2 million Britons, and almost 19,000 Canadians — immediately created pandemonium across organizations, forcing many business leaders to reconsider their security postures. Much has changed over the past five years, but the lessons from the Equifax breach are still relevant for enterprises.
Equifax didn't reveal the breach as soon as it discovered it — the company sat on the information for more than a month. It was the perfect antithesis: A business known to provide credit score rating, fraud solutions, financial marketing, and analytical services had been hacked. The attackers had gotten in through an unpatched vulnerability in Apache Struts. The worst part? Apache had already warned about the flaw and a patch was available.
"The Equifax breach is a unique attack in that a conscious decision was made by a company and its leadership: not to patch the vulnerability when the software vendor announced the vulnerability and provided the patch," says James Turgal, vice president of cyber risk, strategy, and board relations at Optiv.
The attack, now linked to four hackers from the Chinese military, represents one of the most sweeping attacks conducted against US businesses by foreign nationals. Industry experts discuss with Dark Reading what lessons to draw from the breach and how organizations can prevent similar threats in their environments.
Data Management Is Still an Enterprise Problem
"Equifax shows that organizations need to focus on data management," Adam Marrè, CISO at Arctic Wolf and former FBI special agent/cyber investigator, tells Dark Reading.
"With so many different IT and security priorities, companies aren't thinking about data management in the right ways. Most organizations only think about how best to monetize data or how to use it to serve their customers, but they often miss the significant increase in risk that storing the data brings."
Turgal agrees, noting that enterprises and individuals are at risk of data exfiltration and identity theft.
"Every day, companies large and small fall victim to identity theft," he says. "Both the high volume of activity and large transactions occurring at the corporate level attract threat actors, using data that typically has been exfiltrated from another breach by a separate threat actor and sold to the highest bidder to impersonate the identity of a business to commit fraud."
Gartner estimates that until 2025, "80% of organizations seeking to scale digital business will fail because they do not take a modern approach to data governance." That's a lot of businesses, and it's a figure that Marrè agrees with.
"In my experience, most companies don't have a comprehensive picture of how they collect, store, and manage data," he says. "Especially from a security standpoint, most businesses have no idea who has access to what data, how to properly classify it, how to protect it, and even how to set up data retention policies to properly get rid of it. By focusing on these aspects, businesses can transform their data strategies and further protect themselves and their customers."
Turgal suggests that organizations can safeguard data and identity by doing the following:
- Include artificial intelligence and machine-learning technologies into the business processes to quickly spot anomalous behavior.
- Review and update access permissions and utilize data encryption when the data is in transit and at rest.
- Establish protocols for user provisioning and deprovisioning of regular and privileged access holders.
- Continually educate employees on how to minimize risk.
Enterprises Aren't Paying Attention to the Basics
The fundamentals of cybersecurity are still lacking in several enterprise efforts at securing user data. Leaning on his experience in the FBI and private sector, Marrè says he has seen so many organizations that are not adequately prioritizing security. With security incidents at high-profile businesses and rampant ransomware and extortion attacks worldwide, organizations can no longer afford to ignore or sideline their security, he says.
"Although there are new and exciting technologies that are aimed at solving different attack vectors, focusing on successfully executing the fundamentals of cybersecurity remains the most effective strategy," Marrè says. "When it comes to protecting your organization and your data, prevention is good, but detection is a must."
Many attacks can be avoided by implementing zero-trust architecture to the letter. In hindsight, for example, the Equifax attack could have been prevented if the organization had paid more attention to the multiple threat warnings the company had received before the hack.
The Equifax breach was "a strong example of why enterprises should evaluate their data to understand the business need and ensure it is classified appropriately," says Andrew Bayers, head of threat intelligence at Resilience, adding that data should be stored and transmitted securely — and ultimately retained for only the amount of time needed.
Cyber Resilience Needs Action, Not Reaction
While it's true that some players in the enterprise are investing heavily in cybersecurity, several others are still lagging — giving malicious actors an opening to capitalize on discrepancies and take control of critical data assets. Although its activities are not immediately noticeable, a proactive cybersecurity team is worth its weight in gold.
"Having a skilled security team is the backbone of a sound cybersecurity strategy," Marrè says. "Whether it's a world-class team from a partner or in-house experts, this should be a priority for all companies."
To become cyber resilient, Bayers adds, organizations should identify vulnerabilities in their systems and prioritize patching according to the risks they pose.