When Anthem first announced the breach of 80 million of its records, FBI spokespersons credited Anthem with responding only weeks after the attack started.
Soon after, Brian Krebs, who blogs at KrebsOnSecurity, uncovered evidence that the attack might have started much earlier.
Why does it take so long for companies like Anthem to discover data breaches in progress and even longer to tell consumers?
Although the answer to that question remains complicated, one truth is undeniably simple: Consumers are the last to know.
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10 Months in the Making
On April 21, 2014, the IP address 22.214.171.124 became home to a new domain called we11point.com. Additional subdomains, including myhr.we11point.com, hrsolutions.we11point.com, and excitrix.we11point.com were added. Security researchers discovered that the subdomains looked like the components of the Wellpoint corporate network. Wellpoint, until late 2014, was Anthem’s corporate name.
The last subdomain, excitrix.we11point.com, is associated with a piece of backdoor malware that masquerades as Citrix’s VPN software. The malware had a security certificate signed by DTOPTOOLZ.COM, which is a known signature for a large Chinese cyber-espionage group called Deep Panda. In May 2014, Deep Panda targeted a series of phishing emails toward Wellpoint employees, trying to obtain their login credentials.
Interestingly, Premera Blue Cross, another large health insurance provider, disclosed a data breach on March 15, 2015. A few weeks before the disclosure, a security firm tied Deep Panda to another domain called prennera.com. Premera discovered its breach in January 2015 but revealed that the first attack happened back in May 2014.
Experts say that Deep Panda probably didn’t want to steal and sell 80 million records worth of patient information. Instead, the organization wanted to find records on one or more individuals that could help it infiltrate a U.S. defense program.
Why it Went Unnoticed
Attacks go unnoticed for several different reasons. Because few attacks disrupt a company’s external services, intruders often remain undetected on the network for long periods of time. Also, companies might receive endpoint alerts related to intrusions, but they receive so much security data that they can’t analyze all of it.
Buried by alert data and logs, analysts can’t distinguish which notifications are real and which are false alarms. Time and financial constraints prevent them from investigating every lead and keeps big companies like Anthem from connecting the dots.
Despite the staggering evidence that companies are typically slow to detect data breaches, corporate security teams think they’re better than they are. For instance, a security survey of 500 IT decision makers revealed that when asked, IT leaders claimed that they discovered most data breaches within 10 hours. The Verizon Data Breach Investigation Report, however, contradicts their claims.
According to Verizon, 66 percent of breaches take months or even years to detect. Properly configured network and cloud security and data center defense tools can prevent many infiltrations. However, when attackers obtain an administrator-level password, as Deep Panda did during the Anthem attack, they don’t have to break through company defenses.
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Disclosing the Breach to Consumers
Because Congress has so much difficulty coming to a consensus on cybersecurity, particularly data breach disclosure requirements, different states have created a mashup of laws. Instead of containing specific timeframes regarding data breach disclosure, these laws often use vague wording. For example, a New York disclosure law states that companies must publish “in the most expedient time possible and without unreasonable delay,” but it also allows delays that accommodate “the legitimate needs of law enforcement.”
Anthem, possibly learning from the mistakes of other organizations, disclosed its breach and contacted law enforcement not long after the initial discovery. Other companies aren’t so forthcoming. They keep breaches under wraps for months before letting customers know their information was compromised.
Making Prevention a Priority
Instead of focusing on fending off attacks as they happen, companies need threat intelligence tools that identify internal vulnerabilities and data assets. Then, they should compare that with data from the external threat landscape to anticipate the company’s likelihood of being attacked.
Congress introduced the Data Security and Breach Notification Act of 2015, but critics argue that the law would weaken stronger state laws that are favorable to consumers. Before it can pass a law, Congress has to balance the consumer’s right to know with the company’s desire to keep information private. Staying quiet might help an ongoing law enforcement investigation, but it shouldn’t be used to save face.