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What the Target Breach and Edward Snowden Tell Us About Network Controls

Giant data leaks from retailers to national security show that cyber security is more than an IT issue. It's about who has access -- and control. By Eric Chiu

Target. Even the brand name lends itself to hacking. It’s like painting a bright red bull’s-eye on a big, juicy company with lots of money and information, just waiting to be stolen. And it was.

While such breaches are sadly common now, the high-profile attack on retail giant Target stands out for several reasons. First, there’s the sheer scope of the theft. By some accounts, it’s the single largest corporate hack in history. Next, it targeted (there’s no way avoid the pun) the retail industry, the repository of vast amounts of data on millions of consumers. Third, rather than a single announcement regarding the breach, there’s been a slow and constant drip of bad news. As far as we know (and we still don’t know much) the hacking began on Nov. 27 and went on through Dec. 15. The first word of it came from a cybersecurity blogger, and Target subsequently confirmed that financial information on 40 million consumers had been compromised. That’s a scary prospect by any measure, but on Jan. 10 the company reported that personal information (home addresses, phone numbers, etc.) on 70 million customers had been exposed.

Does that overlap with the 40 million whose financial data was compromised, or does it mean a third of the entire U.S. population? We don’t know. Could the numbers change again? We don’t know. Most importantly, how did this happen? You guessed it: We don’t know.

Target still hasn’t said much, but initial thinking held that hackers had accessed point-of-sale data by inserting malware into a central software distribution database used to update software in customer-facing terminals. This is because the victims were believed to be only consumers who swiped debit or credit cards at terminals in U.S. stores. The stolen data included names, credit and debit card numbers, expiration dates and three-digit security codes. However, the news regarding the 70 million victims goes further; more than just financial data, it likely meant marketing databases were compromised. This will have a huge impact on consumers for years to come, from unauthorized transactions, to phishing attacks, to the theft of even more information, and, ultimately, identity theft.

(Read more Defense One coverage on cyber-security here) 

If the Target fiasco is one extreme, then the other breach that dominates the news—Edward Snowden’s hacking of National Security Administration data—is surely another. The Snowden saga involves a lone operative authorized to access at least some of the data he released, in pursuit of a political agenda; the Target breach is the work of sophisticated cybercriminals chasing financial gains. Yet both episodes clearly demonstrate that every organization relying on sensitive information from financial services and healthcare corporations to government agencies, is in its own way a target (there’s that word again).

What’s particularly maddening is that despite saturation coverage of many high-profile breaches, each taking its toll on brand reputation, data security is still rarely a top priority. Companies do the minimum they believe they need to do in order to comply with government mandates and industry guidelines, but the initiatives are typically tactical rather than strategic. More to the point, positioning it exclusively as an information technology issue, as a lot of the media tend to do, continues this short-sighted approach. And of course, the ongoing mass migration to consolidated, virtualized infrastructures and a cloud model presents even greater potential for security problems.

The benefits of such a move are clearly undeniable—it cuts costs, boosts flexibility and helps streamline the entire infrastructure—and it’s why most organizations store huge amounts of data and resources in virtualized infrastructures and the cloud this way. However, this model also introduces a host of fresh vulnerabilities.

For a start, it gives even low-level systems engineers and administrators unprecedented levels of access. This is exactly how Snowden, for example, got the keys to the kingdom. The kind of privileged access taken for granted in virtualized environments also allows an unprecedented level of attack escalation. Given that there’s a much greater concentration of risk, it’s much harder to contain the damage once an assault commences.

Too many organizations see IT security as exclusively an IT issue, and it categorically is not. Given the brand and customer damage Target has suffered, I’m sure company officials there would agree. This is fundamentally about control—deciding who has what kind of access to the network, how specific roles are monitored, ensuring that usage records can be retrieved for compliance, troubleshooting, and forensic analysis, etc.

Moving forward, organizations need to take a far more strategic approach to security than they ever have before. We all want advances in the network infrastructure, since each technological breakthrough enables greater productivity. However, innovation without adequate security defeats the very purpose of progress. With the right strategy, technology and enforcement, we can have both.

Eric Chiu is co-founder of HyTrust, a cloud security automation company. He previously served in executive roles at Cemaphore Systems and MailFrontier, and was a venture capitalist at Brentwood (now Redpoint) and Pinnacle Ventures. He is a published author and speaks frequently at industry forums internationally. He can be reached at