Thanks to its very public hack and sensationalized dump of full customer data, Ashley Madison has become a household name in a matter of weeks. While the negative attention doesn’t bode well for the company’s long-term viability, Ashley Madison claims “hundreds of thousands” of new users are still signing up each week.
Whether or not you believe that statistic, it’s clear the company’s security failures have shined a spotlight on what not to do when given the task of protecting sensitive consumer data. The fallout from this scandal could forever change the way organizations strategically view and approach security. Ashley Madison’s entire business hinged on its commitment to anonymity, trust, and discretion, and its trumped-up security claims were the cause of its public humiliation.
Although the hacking collective known as the Impact Team targeted the extramarital affair matchmaking site for misleading customers with a bogus “full delete” user privacy feature, the group didn’t hesitate to out the site’s 37 million users as collateral damage to bring down the organization. Ashley Madison must face the consequences for its security negligence.
[Read Ashley Madison Guilty Of Hard-Coded Creds, Weak Bot Detection for the latest details on the breach.]
Before the breach, the company boasted about airtight data security but ironically, still proudly displays a graphic with the phrase “trusted security award” on its homepage. In a Q&A with MOTHERBOARD, the Impact Team asserted that Ashley Madison not only employed substandard security measures but also had a complete disregard for security across the board:
"We worked hard to make a fully undetectable attack, then got in and found nothing to bypass.... Nobody was watching. No security. Only thing was segmented network. You could use Pass1234 from the internet to VPN to root on all servers.”
In the aftermath of the breach, Ashley Madison’s inability to identify the culprit confirms a gaping hole in its security infrastructure. Although former CEO Noel Biderman suggested to Brian Krebs in an interview that the breach was an inside job committed by a trusted third-party contractor, the $500K reward Ashley Madison’s parent company is now offering for intel raises serious doubts. The fact that the company cannot produce a data audit trail to unequivocally determine the perpetrator of this attack only underscores that it did not have proper monitoring and visibility into its own organization.
With its user base now exposed to the world, it's hard to imagine the company won’t face ramifications for its poor security infrastructure and total lack of a forensic framework. For a company whose offering can best be described as discretion-as-a-service, using anything less than the most state-of-the-art threat detection capabilities is inexcusable. Ashley Madison should have had systems in place to detect and flag suspicious behavior from within the network before a hack could occur. In the case of a swift-moving attack, it could have created an irrefutable data trail to decisively name a suspect immediately. Without these measures in place, a bad actor can go unnoticed for months within a company’s network and make off with the “crown jewels” without a trace.
On top of individual class-action lawsuits, Canada’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner is also conducting an investigation, however current Canadian privacy laws don’t allow the Commissioner to levy fines and lack legal teeth when breaches like this come to light. Many privacy advocates hope this event will result in a reevaluation or bolstering of recent privacy laws.
At the organizational level, data security is also moving to center stage for regulators. As more scandals unfold revealing lax corporate policies that place customers in the crosshairs, government entities like the U.S. Federal Trade Commission have been empowered to ensure consumer protection and hold individual organizations accountable for careless security practices.
The notoriety of the Ashley Madison case all but demands public action by regulators to send a message to organizations across the globe. This is an opportunity for the FTC and other legislators to educate businesses about safeguarding data and making honest promises about what’s being done to ensure consumer protection. Companies unable to prove they have the appropriate security measures in place will find themselves in the hot seat—where Ashley Madison is sitting now.
Regardless of the legal ramifications Ashley Madison will face, this breach should serve as a wake-up call to organizations across industries. Every firm—whether they handle high-risk data or not—opens themselves up to the risk of losing customer trust if they are not effectively defending against threats from both outside and inside the business. Any CEO who isn’t vigilantly protecting his or her company’s assets with systems designed to track user behavior and identify malicious activity is acting negligently and putting the entire organization at risk. And as we’ve seen in the case of Ashley Madison, leadership all the way up to the CEO may very well be forced out when security isn’t prioritized as a core tenet of an organization.