Target, other firms need stronger protections to prevent data thefts.
The cyberthieves who hit Target Corp. took advantage of a widespread and often overlooked weakness in corporate information security: third-party computer connections that can create a virtual back door to customer information.
Digital links with suppliers, contractors or consultants are essential to run a complex business in the Internet age. Yet, even as companies spend millions to bolster the security of their networks, the access vendors are given doesn’t get nearly enough attention, several information security professionals say.
Hackers gained access to Target’s computer systems through the stolen credentials of a heating and refrigeration contractor. Once inside, the thieves were able to move around and ultimately stole payment card data card or personal information of up to 110 million Target customers.
Given that the typical Fortune 1000 company likely has thousands of active suppliers, hackers have plenty of ways to infiltrate, said Jeff Hall, a security consultant in the Twin Cities for Overland Park, Kan.-based FishNet Security.
“I’ve hacked companies through their elevator contractors,” Hall said.
Most companies don’t view third party vendors as a major security threat, said David Kennedy, founder of the security firm TrustedSec. in Strongsville, Ohio. Vendor management, as he describes it, is “extremely loose.”
Security pros consider the supply chain a critical security risk — ranking with the classic employee insider attack and the traditional hack, where an outsider ferrets a hole in a company’s firewall.
“In the modern world, business-to-business connections are the weakest link,” said Brian Isle, founder of the Minneapolis-based cybersecurity firm Adventium Labs. “The first thing an attacker will do is look at who you do business with.”
One door opens many
Once a skilled hacker gains entry into a company’s network, they frequently can move around even if there’s segmentation such as firewalls with rules that restrict network traffic, said TrustedSec’s Kennedy. “The rest of it is basically wide open,” he said.
Investigations into Target’s hack, one of the largest recorded data breaches in U.S. history, continue. It’s not yet clear how cyber thieves stole the network access credentials from Fazio Mechanical Services Inc., a heating and refrigeration company in Sharpsburg, Penn., first identified by investigative security blogger Brian Krebs at KrebsonSecurity as the point of entry.
It’s also unclear how they moved from vendor access to the point of sale systems in Target’s stores. That’s where malware was discovered that allowed hackers to collect unencrypted card data.
Isle, Kennedy and others encourage clients to run penetration tests, sometimes called Red Teaming, in which expert crews stage hack attacks to sleuth out vendor vulnerabilities to fix so the bad guys can’t get in.
Until now, however, corporate information security efforts have focused more on the insider attack and the traditional outsider hacker, said Greg Brown, chief technology officer of Cloud and Internet of Things at McAfee, a leading computer security company based in Santa Clara, Calif. They generally haven’t been applied to the chain of third parties companies do business with, he said.
Fazio President Ross Fazio issued a statement last Thursday saying his company, too, was a “victim of a sophisticated cyberattack operation.”
“Fazio Mechanical does not perform remote monitoring of or control of heating, cooling and refrigeration systems for Target,” Fazio said.
Citing the ongoing investigations, Target would not discuss its protocol for granting computer access to vendors or what firewalls it built to keep consumers’ credit card and personal data secure.
Target Chief Financial Officer John Mulligan testified in Congressional hearings last week that Target has invested “hundreds of millions of dollars” over the past several years in information security, including segmentation, malware detection, intrusion detection and prevention, and data loss prevention.