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What Is a ‘Data Breach’ Really?

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Data breaches. Vulnerabilities.

These terms have entered our lexicon. But what exactly do they refer to?

Recent news events show that we are in a period where the terminology we use to refer to security shortfalls is in flux.

Target, Home Depot and JPMorgan Chase clearly suffered major data breaches. So did Apple’s iCloud, Dropbox and Snapchat. Or so we thought.

Apple, Dropbox and Snapchat have refuted being directly hacked. And strictly speaking, each is right. Hackers may have sniffed Hollywood A-listers’ iCloud usernames and passwords over an open WiFi network at a celebrity event. And data apparently was leaked from third-party apps that piggyback onto Dropbox and Snapchat.

The distinction here is that the parent company’s databases were not directly compromised. In the case of iCloud, the celebrity users may have exposed themselves by not paying closer attention to their digital footprints. And in the case of Dropbox and Snapchat, the breach occurred at the wild and wooly collection of third-party apps that tie into the big name services.

Similarly, Heartbleed and Shellshock are two of the nastiest Internet-wide vulnerabilities ever to come to light. Heartbleed exposes the OpenSSL protocols widely used by website shopping carts. And Shellshock enables a hacker to take control of the module used to type text-based commands on Linux, Unix and Mac servers.

But what exactly was it that allowed ethical hacker Bryan Seely, of Seely Security, to access giant bond insurer MBIA’s customer financial accounts? Seely has also been able to tap into the Internet-facing Oracle servers of at least 8,000 other large organizations, including two Ivy League schools.

So was it one of these Internet-wide vulnerabilities that Seely manipulated? Not at all. Seely simply discovered that each organization misconfigured Oracle server software in a way that allowed the servers to be indexed—and thus made searchable—by Google and the Shodan search engine.

Confusing Context

The implications of this are profound. It means anyone who takes the time to learn the finer points of conducting Google and Shodan searches can find and access misconfigured Oracle servers at thousands of clueless organizations.

“Our lexicon doesn’t have enough words to describe every flavor of information compromise, so we call every such incident a breach,” says Tal Klein, vice president of strategy at cloud security company Adallom. “This is a huge problem because it makes it very hard for the average person to understand exactly what their personal risk is in the context of each event.”

Our networks are getting ever more complex. Meanwhile, emerging threats are expanding and intensifying. In this mix, poor security practices remain the rule, not the exception. IBM Security Services’ 2014 Cyber Security Intelligence Index shows human error to be a contributing factor in 95% of security incidents. That includes misconfigurations, lax patch management and use of weak passwords.

Meanwhile, no one in the security community expects discoveries of serious design flaws—known as zero-day vulnerabilities—to slow down any time soon.

“All software is buggy and vulnerable. Developers are under pressure to deliver more, faster so they take shortcuts and make mistakes,” says Chris Goettl, principal manager at vulnerability management firm Shavlik. “The reality is that vulnerabilities like the Heartbleed and Shellshock exist because software is only as secure as we can make it.”

Indeed, Heartbleed and Shellshock show how programming decisions made a decade ago, before social media and the Internet of Things, now translate into fresh turf for a willing and able cyber underground.

Shellshock Attacks

Since the initial Shellshock vulnerability was reported Sept. 24, website security vendor Incapsula has blocked more than 310,000 attempts to exploit the Shellshock flaw on its clients’ websites, at one point as many as 1,860 attacks per hour.

Only 6% of that traffic appeared to be legitimate security scans. “An overwhelming 94% was some form of attack,” says Incapsula co-founder Marc Gaffan. “Specifically, these were scans by hackers, server highjack attempts, and DDoS malware seeding. The highjack attempts were the most immediately troubling, comprising about 20% of the total.”

Probes to take advantage of Heartbleed and Shellshock have the earmarks of being backed by organized crime. There is another tier of much less sophisticated thieves and pranksters having a grand time probing weaknesses arising from the mishmash of partnerships and sharing attendant to social media services, such as iCloud, Dropbox and Snapchat.

Adallom’s Klein argues that company owners—and consumers, celebrities included—need to share the burden of preserving security.

Use common sense. Guard you sensitive data and photos. Don’t give sweeping permissions to trivial apps. Don’t use the same username and password on multiple accounts.

And if you run a business, engrain security into your business plan. Advises Klein: “Start being strategic about vulnerability mitigation; perform an audit of open source technologies your infrastructure is built on; have good patching hygiene as a de facto standard; assign engineering resources to participate in the development and maintenance of these projects.”

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