Data breaches will remain a huge concern in 2008, says Symantec exec

Dean Turner, Director of Symantec’s Global Intelligence Network says data breaches and ID theft will continue dominate the threat landscape next year. He also outlines practical steps companies and consumers can take to protect themselves, in this interview with editor, Joaquim P. Menezes.

In its recent threat trends report, Symantec listed high-profile data breaches as one of the Top 10 Internet Security trends of 2007. Do you foresee these being major threats in 2008 as well?

Certainly – because what we’re talking about here is stolen identities and data extrapolated for identity exposure, which is then sold and used to commit fraud. As the threat landscape is pretty much dominated by the money [motive] – these will definitely continue to be huge concerns moving forward.

Is the a strong causal link between the two? Would you say data breaches are one of the biggest factors leading to ID theft?

Absolutely. Without a doubt data theft is one of the – if not the – leading cause of exposed identities. And identity theft is a very major concern. But one thing to keep in mind is that this is a global problem. ID breaches that occur in Canada or any country around the world may not be caused by Canadian attackers. They could be coming from someone in Timbuktu. That’s the nature of the Internet – it’s global, it’s de-centralized, and criminals have taken advantage of that. So we need to be cautious – as it’s not just in our own backyard that these threats emerge.

Data can be breached in a variety of ways – physically and virtually. In your experience, what are the commonest types of data threats?

When we take a look at data breaches as a whole, the primary cause of that is data theft or loss. And that could be something as simple as somebody leaving a laptop somewhere, or it could be an internal employee walking out with company information on a USB thumb drive or something like that. The next cause, of course, is insecure policy.  Some issues enterprises and governments are starting to grapple with as their organizations get bigger are: “What types of security policy should we have in place? Should this be homogenous between all departments? Does it need to be tweaked based upon the sensitivity and security levels of all those departments?” and so on.

But we’ve found with one subset of data breaches – those that eventually led to exposed identities – the majority (around 74 per cent) were due to hacking. So the stuff that’s actually making it out, and being sold online, a lot of that is being done through hacking and external infiltration of databases.

There are so many methods to get at that type of information, and one of the most popular, of course, is through malicious code – things like Trojans and bots. A lot of those attacks are designed to take place in stages. The first attack usually opens up a back door, and then [subsequent attacks] leak the data out of the systems to another place on the Internet.

What steps can enterprises – especially those that are custodians of confidential information – take to protect themselves and their customers from data breaches leading to ID theft?

There are a host of things organizations should be doing. First and foremost is performing a risk assessment. They need to classify their information – to identify the critical places where their information resides, and how that is connected, not just internally – but if any of that is being exposed externally.

They have to make sure that appropriate solutions are in place – firewalls, intrusion detection systems, anti-virus software – and often forgotten is things like backup.

They should also ensure that in the event of some kind of catastrophic occurrence, or a theft, or destruction of data – that you’ve got a way to get that data back into the system.

The policy end of that is identifying a process that your organization goes through; identify what’s critical and what’s not – and what we do in the event of a data breach. So if we have super-sensitive information – such as a credit card database of our customers – we have to be very careful to ensure that that data is in a location where it’s very tightly controlled, with restrictions as to who has access to it and who doesn’t.

What about at an individual level – what do employees or consumers or online shoppers and others do to mitigate the risk of ID theft?

It’s many of the very same things, but only on a smaller scale. Consumers and small businesses may store less confidential information than enterprises – but that data is no less important.

So they too have to look at where they keep their information, and ask themselves, for instance: “Do I want to store my credit card information in a file on my computer? Do I want to have the browser remember my input information in the forms?

They should make sure they have anti-virus or their desktop or laptop, that they are using a firewall, careful that the types of information they give out online is not just their phone number – but they are cautious about buying things online and using their credit card.

There are a lot of shady Web sites out there that look very professional. It’s not that people should not shop online. But they should exercise a healthy dose of skepticism when they do that – just as they would when shopping in the non-virtual world.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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