New analysis of stolen data brings surprises

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

Every year, the highly respected Verizon Business RISK data crime–investigation team publishes an analysis of major online data thefts it’s been asked to study.

This year, a first-ever joint report by VBR and the U.S. Secret Service presents a fascinating view into the state of the data-stealing art, with many surprising facts that should interest all consumers.

Throughout 2009, according to the 2010 Data Breach Investigation Report (PDF), Verizon investigated 57 “confirmed breaches” that included data theft. The Secret Service investigated 84 similar cases. That’s 141 verified cases covering a total of 143 million data records owned by organizations around the world. Verizon’s efforts led to arrests in 15% of its cases; the Secret Service’s rate was a more-impressive 66%.

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As you might imagine, many of the victimized companies don’t want their identities to be known. The report states, “… about two-thirds of the breaches covered herein have either not yet been disclosed or never will be.” Nevertheless, this aggregate report is still important: it gives an excellent overview of security problems that could affect you, the consumer.

Who’s stealing sensitive data? Surprise!

I always assumed that most people involved in stealing sensitive data from organizations — bank records, credit-card numbers, personal information — were rogues acting alone, selling their booty via clandestine channels to the highest bidder.

Wrong!

An astonishing 85% of all stolen data records can, according to this report, be traced to organized crime. “Banding together allows criminal groups to pool resources, specialize skills, and distribute the work effort.” Lone wolves aren’t stealing our data. Rather, it’s groups of people, acting in concert with one simple motive: profit.

The report quashed many of my other preconceived notions. For example, insiders (employees, executives, programmers) were actively involved in 48% of the cases — which doesn’t surprise me — but they were implicated in only 3% of the total number of records stolen. Insiders participate in smaller jobs.

I was also surprised to find that the percentage of pilfering attributable to business partners — a category that includes IT service providers, suppliers, and vendors — has fallen steadily. The report can’t pinpoint the reason for the decline in partners’ shenanigans, but does point to the possibility that increased awareness of third-party security threats may be a factor.

It also mentions organizations such as hotel, restaurant, and retail companies that hire outsiders to provide IT services: “Organizations that outsource their IT management and support also outsource a great deal of trust to these partners.” If your company’s thinking about outsourcing, that’s a word to the wise.

And, contrary to widespread publicity, no foreign governments were implicated in data thefts, according to this report.

How the bad guys get your personal information

While headlines herald stories about a bank employee losing a notebook with a gazillion account records or a civil servant dropping a disc with Social Security numbers, the report notes that 98% of the stolen data was snatched directly from company servers — mostly by use of malware and direct hacking.

Once again, the Verizon/Secret Service numbers surprised me. More than half of the malware infections came from direct installation (injection) by the attacker, and SQL databases led the list of subverted systems. SQL injections frequently rely on well-known quirks in SQL systems; craftily assembled SQL database queries, for example, can install programs that pluck data and send it to the requester.

Perhaps the best-known SQL-injection attack involved American Albert Gonzalez, who on March 25 was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for stealing more than 90 million credit- and debit-card numbers. (See Wired’s March 25 Threat Level post.) As the Verizon report says, “SQL infection vulnerabilities are endemic, and to fix them you have to overhaul all your code.”

The second-most-popular method for subverting servers uses drive-by Web infections (where you get an infection without actually clicking anything on a malicious site), followed by infections that require user interaction (“click here to clean your system” come-ons, for example).

Added together, injections and Web infections using malware accounted for 79% of all stolen data — not e-mail, not infected documents, and not zero-day attacks.

Keyloggers — those surreptitiously installed programs that record what you type — made up 36% of all the data breaches but accounted for only 1% of the clandestinely collected data. That’s a big change from last year, when keyloggers collected more than 80% of the compromised data. The bad guys have found more efficient ways to take your information.

And what of the never-ending process of receiving and applying security patches to quickly shore up those security vulnerabilities? Not an issue, says the report. “It is very interesting to note that there were no confirmed cases in which malware exploited a system or software vulnerability in 2009 … there wasn’t a single confirmed intrusion that exploited a patchable vulnerability.”

What companies must do to protect our data

If this is all starting to sound hopeless, it isn’t. The authors of the report offer many suggestions that every company with sensitive data should consider. Most of it doesn’t stray too far from common sense: give access to sensitive information only to employees who need it, watch your access logs, encourage strong passwords, warn employees about installing rogue antivirus programs, and so on.

Even if you aren’t involved with an organization that handles sensitive data, you need to know that the kinds of attacks documented by Verizon are getting larger and more complex.

You can help by regularly checking all of your online information that you can access, reporting any data or activity you see that’s out of the ordinary. Immediately tell your bank, your credit card company, and your stock broker if you think something’s gone awry.

As the report says, “Third-party fraud detection is still the most common way breach victims come to know of their predicament” — in other words, companies learn of breaches when customers report them.

So if you think your data’s been stolen, holler yer head off!

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Woody Leonhard‘s latest books — Windows 7 All-In-One For Dummies and Green Home Computing For Dummies — deliver the straight story in a way that won’t put you to sleep.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2010-08-19:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.