Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Analytics //

Security Monitoring

09:00 AM
Craig Carpenter
Craig Carpenter
Connect Directly

Be Careful Beating Up Target

Target was actually better prepared than most retailers. The real problem lies with the current state of industry threat intelligence and IR practices.

A flurry of stories surfaced recently, including those in Bloomberg BusinessWeek and InformationWeek, highlighting signals of compromise that Target apparently "missed" or even "ignored," resulting in the theft of 40 million credit card accounts. Clearly the Target breach was serious and wide-ranging, as it affected a large number of customers and even hit Target’s fourth-quarter revenue and earnings

Before we get carried away with all that Target could or should have done to prevent its breach, we should examine all that was done and take a closer look at just how different Target’s preparation and response were from those of almost any other Global 1000 firm. What we’ll find is that Target was actually better prepared than the vast majority of its peers across all industries, leading to the clear conclusion that the problem lies not with Target, but with the current state of threat intelligence and IR (incident response).

First, Target did a lot of things right. It had dedicated security and IR teams using multiple advanced tools; according to Congressional testimony by Target’s CFO, the retailer "…spent hundreds of millions of dollars protecting… data and employed more than 300 people on the issue." This was an investment relatively few entities can match.

As with any breach, Target had some missteps and vulnerabilities. First, management was apparently unwilling to move to new, more secure smart-chip-based card systems common in Europe, due to cost concerns. Second, the retailer is alleged to have ignored pleas by its security team to do a more thorough review of its payment system -- likely in part due to the timing of the request, coming a short time before the critical post-Thanksgiving shopping season. Third, many have criticized Target’s failure to wall-off its payment systems from the rest of its corporate network, through which hackers were able to gain access to payment details. 

But was Target’s security posture and IR process really that much different from those of other large corporate and government entities? As The Wall Street Journal points out, "The sheer volume of warnings retailers receive makes it hard to know which to take seriously." But this dynamic is not unique to retailers: Every corporate and government entity today receives more alerts than they can handle -- even with sophisticated anti-malware systems and hundreds of employees dedicated solely to security. It’s the downside to big data: Too much information in a cybersecurity context can be, and often is, harmful.

Exacerbating this situation is the incredibly manual, ad hoc nature of today’s IR. An entity like Target likely gets hundreds if not thousands of alerts every day, from myriad systems, including anti-malware tools (e.g., FireEye), next-gen firewalls (e.g., Palo Alto Networks), and SIEMs (e.g., ArcSight, Splunk, etc.) to name just a few.  Alerts aren’t correlated across each other or typically checked against known good lists, bad lists, or indicators of compromise (IoCs), similar to criminal “watch lists” of mug shots with fingerprints and rap sheets. Each alert typically has minimal detail, is not confirmed against the system(s) in question, and is not prioritized. Thus alerts tell a security analyst very little and all look alike… yet they must be investigated to at least a minimal degree.

Worse yet, gathering even minimal investigative details requires an entirely manual process: Security analysts must manually compare the alert against IoCs, access the system(s) in question, manually confirm that the alert is real (i.e., the system in question are in fact compromised) by grabbing data from the system in question, and then manually comparing this evidence to other bits of data from completely different systems before forming a judgment as to the veracity and severity of the alert. 

For an entity like Target, this manual, error-prone process is replicated hundreds if not thousands of times each day, each a largely separate investigation. While hackers need only slip through once to wreak their havoc, Target must be right 100 percent of the time.  

The issue isn’t Target’s security team or investment in tools, but rather the current state of the threat intelligence and IR practices as employed by Target and virtually all enterprises and government entities globally. These IR practices can be summed up in two words: un-integrated and manual. Until both are fixed with more integrated and automated approaches, we will find ourselves continuing to wonder why firms like Target "missed" or "ignored" alarm bells.

Craig joined AccessData as Chief Marketing Officer in 2013. With the company split in November 2014, he was promoted to President and COO of the newly formed cybersecurity company, Resolution1 Security. Prior to joining AccessData, Craig was VP of Marketing and Business ... View Full Bio

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Oldest First  |  Newest First  |  Threaded View
Page 1 / 2   >   >>
User Rank: Strategist
4/1/2014 | 9:52:31 AM
So we're supposed to take it easy on Target because other companies are just as bad? That's the most insane thing I've ever heard. So because other companies are just as bad at protecting our sensitive personal information, we should be nice?


We should be crucifying every last one of them. I can guarantee that all of these companies have I.T. teams that warn them about these problems, but the companies choose to ignore them due to budget or other reasons. Just like Target had been warned by it's team.


But yet, we are supposed to go easy on them. Because clearly Target's credit was screwed over right? Their negligence for their customers' information in some way hurt them financially right?! WRONG. The customers were the ones who lost in this, all because of corporate greed.


User Rank: Apprentice
4/1/2014 | 11:43:41 AM
It's Windows, Stupid!
Target was better prepared than most of the industry, yet they still couldn't shake the one simple, inherent weakness that most of the industry still chooses to ignore - Microsoft Windows.

Until companies get serious about moving away from Windows, they aren't really serious about security. You can't be serious about protecting your company and your customers if you build your information technology infrastructure on top of a foundation that is full of security holes.

Sure, let's not blame Target because they seemed to do almost everything right - except the choice of their core technology.
Duane T
Duane T,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/1/2014 | 12:13:32 PM
False premise of manual processes
Target was certified via PCI DSS in September, so some might believe that they were doing what was necessary to secure their data. Unfortunately, Compliance ≠ Security, and malware detection is like a red flashing light and siren. If you do nothing about it, all you can say is that you were warned.

That's why it's about time that these companies all invested in automated incident response systems that lock down a detected threat. What's odd in this situation is that FireEye has an entire "mitigation" partner page for this on their website, and Target did not use any of them. Think about it - if they used automated detection tools, why not use automated incident response tools that reduce manual tasks and eliminate human error? This doesn't have to be that complicated.

Wait, in a few seconds I found NetCitadel, Bradford Networks, and ForeScout as mitigation options.
User Rank: Apprentice
4/2/2014 | 7:51:03 AM
Why Target and What to Do

i donot know anyone that works for target corporate; however,i've talked with people that know alot about how target manages security andthey have all said that target was much better than most.  whenever you bring budgets into the securitymix, you get intot his discussion about not being the "low hanging fruit".  

someone broughtup a great point in a private discussion about why target and not say...walmart. target has higherend customers so their credit limits will be higher and thus the cards will be worth more onthe blackmarket. this infection was a oneshot opportunity andthe badguys knew it.  they did a good job with their roi and target did a bad job with their risk assessmenttarget thought that there were not the low fruit; however, because their cards were worth more they were in a different category than they thought.

concerning thelogging/monitoring/eventcorrelation aka siem. there is a siem that would have correlated these events and prioritized for the security team. it also would have noticedthat 11 gofdata were being ftped from as erver that normally does not send data to the internet(baselining).  on top of that,i t could have a smart response to automatically block or with approval anything suspicious. it is also in gartner's magic quadrant. 

Marilyn Cohodas
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
4/2/2014 | 9:06:07 AM
"low hanging fruit".
"Whenever you bring budgets into the security mix, you get into this discussion about not being the "low hanging fruit." 

That is such a short-sighted point view! Perhaps if Target had a dedicated CISO in it's corporate hierarchy, the outcome would have been very different. (See: Target Begins Security & Compliance Makeover)
User Rank: Apprentice
4/2/2014 | 1:05:19 PM
Defense in Depth...
With failure to wall-off its payment systems from the rest of its corporate network, through which hackers were able to gain access to payment details, Target effectively lost access control to it's systems. They may not have even deleted dormant passwords. Alot of other faults can be forgiven somewhat, such as the payment system software faults claimed. But not knowing who has access to your systems and verifying their currency is tough to forgive. Too, the inability to determine that an internal server had connected to upload the data to the hackers is another serious fault. So, no with these two glaring problems, don't give Target too much slack.
User Rank: Apprentice
4/2/2014 | 3:02:32 PM
Being wrong with other company doesn't exonerate anyone
While Target and many others performed only 95% of their due diligence, that still doesn't exonerate them or anyone else that's still vulnerable.

Automated event detection, correlation and the elimination of irrelevant alerts should be part of the process. Without that, the other 95% is of minimal consequence. Ignoring those steps because almost everyone else does is what gets them in trouble.

Shared responsibility should go to all the vendors who don't insist these extra steps be taken.



User Rank: Strategist
4/2/2014 | 4:50:13 PM
Re: It's Windows, Stupid!
I think the problem would be prevelant in any mainstream operating system used globally for companies and most households. If MAC OSX was the number 1 used operating system at companies and in homes, then we would be saying the same things about them.
User Rank: Strategist
4/7/2014 | 10:39:21 AM
Re: It's Windows, Stupid!
Agreed. Most of these PoS systems (PoS - lol) run WinXP in admin mode, are not patched properly, and may not even have AV locally. However, most of the fault is still on Target's C executives for dropping the ball on security.
User Rank: Ninja
4/8/2014 | 11:44:32 AM
Re: It's Windows, Stupid!
We don't actually know if Target's POS systems were not updated or had malware protection. We do know that they were PCI sertified immediately prior to the breach, so I'd like to think that their ASV or whomever certified them checked those particular items and deemed them current. What bothers me greatly is the misalignment of their security reporting infrastructure. They had security reporting to IT, which presents a conflict of interest that potentially negates the separation of duties. It wouldn't surprise me if this was behind the security team's decision to act upon the initial malware notification in the way they did. Unfortunately, we will probably never know if it did or not.

Page 1 / 2   >   >>
COVID-19: Latest Security News & Commentary
Dark Reading Staff 9/25/2020
Hacking Yourself: Marie Moe and Pacemaker Security
Gary McGraw Ph.D., Co-founder Berryville Institute of Machine Learning,  9/21/2020
Startup Aims to Map and Track All the IT and Security Things
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor at Dark Reading,  9/22/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
Special Report: Computing's New Normal
This special report examines how IT security organizations have adapted to the "new normal" of computing and what the long-term effects will be. Read it and get a unique set of perspectives on issues ranging from new threats & vulnerabilities as a result of remote working to how enterprise security strategy will be affected long term.
Flash Poll
How IT Security Organizations are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
How IT Security Organizations are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world -- and enterprise computing -- on end. Here's a look at how cybersecurity teams are retrenching their defense strategies, rebuilding their teams, and selecting new technologies to stop the oncoming rise of online attacks.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2020-09-25
In tensorflow-lite before versions 1.15.4, 2.0.3, 2.1.2, 2.2.1 and 2.3.1, when determining the common dimension size of two tensors, TFLite uses a `DCHECK` which is no-op outside of debug compilation modes. Since the function always returns the dimension of the first tensor, malicious attackers can ...
PUBLISHED: 2020-09-25
In tensorflow-lite before versions 1.15.4, 2.0.3, 2.1.2, 2.2.1 and 2.3.1, a crafted TFLite model can force a node to have as input a tensor backed by a `nullptr` buffer. This can be achieved by changing a buffer index in the flatbuffer serialization to convert a read-only tensor to a read-write one....
PUBLISHED: 2020-09-25
In tensorflow-lite before versions 1.15.4, 2.0.3, 2.1.2, 2.2.1 and 2.3.1, if a TFLite saved model uses the same tensor as both input and output of an operator, then, depending on the operator, we can observe a segmentation fault or just memory corruption. We have patched the issue in d58c96946b and ...
PUBLISHED: 2020-09-25
In TensorFlow Lite before versions 1.15.4, 2.0.3, 2.1.2, 2.2.1 and 2.3.1, saved models in the flatbuffer format use a double indexing scheme: a model has a set of subgraphs, each subgraph has a set of operators and each operator has a set of input/output tensors. The flatbuffer format uses indices f...
PUBLISHED: 2020-09-25
In TensorFlow Lite before versions 2.2.1 and 2.3.1, models using segment sum can trigger writes outside of bounds of heap allocated buffers by inserting negative elements in the segment ids tensor. Users having access to `segment_ids_data` can alter `output_index` and then write to outside of `outpu...