The Data Security Weak Link

A low-tech theft of 2.3 million customer records provides clear security lessons.

When Fidelity National Information Services this week announced that about 2.3 million customer records had been illegally sold to a group of direct marketers, most media overlooked the most interesting part: The story behind Fidelitys weakest link.

Some quick background. The Fidelity National were talking about is a Jacksonville, Fla., firm that owns a company called Certegy Check Services Inc. Certegy is mostly in the check authorization business and it tracks bank account information so that it can help retailers determine whether its wise to accept a particular check. The company says it also handles some credit card information "to assist casinos in providing their customers with access to funds."

Fidelity National said that about "2.3 million records are believed to be at issue, with approximately 2.2 million containing bank account information and 99,000 containing credit card information."

Fidelity National said the incident "came to light when one of Certegys retail check processing customers alerted Certegy to a correlation between a small number of check transactions and the receipt by the retailers customers of direct telephone solicitations and mailed marketing materials." Added Renz Nichols, president of Certegy Check Services: "As a result of this apparent theft, the consumers affected received marketing solicitations from the companies that bought the data."

The company said that this was all orchestrated by one employee, who has thus far only been identified as "a senior-level database administrator who was entrusted with defining and enforcing data access rights." If someone wants to steal a database, thats the perfect job to have.

Despite—or is it because of?—this employees technical expertise, intimate knowledge of the network and extreme access, he/she didnt break in, didnt do a transfer and didnt concoct an elaborate script to make data copies. "The incident does not involve any outside intrusion into, or compromise of, Certegys technology systems," said a company statement.

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But heres the most fascinating part: "To avoid detection, the technician removed the information from Certegys facility via physical processes; not electronic transmission."

As a DBA, this admin knew what the security response would be. Theyd search for a security breach and then bring in a forensic investigator. Then came the U.S. Secret Service.

The most time-honored rule of security is the weak link. Namely, that a skilled thief will quickly determine the weakest possible point of access and focus his/her efforts there. Although its obvious takeaway you should try and secure all access points, its also silly waste money layering on excess security on any one entry point. A good analogy is a front door with a high-end deadbolt standing beside a window. Once that door makes the window the weak link, additional security on the door is useless.

In the Fidelity National incident, that DBA knew the companys weak link. They had poured enough security and tracking systems in that he chose to avoid leaving any digital fingerprints at all. Whether the DBA is supposed to have stolen a backup tape or engaged in some other physical theft is not yet clear.

How was the suspect caught? The Secret Service was able to identify the company that was supplying the direct marketers with the information. That company was apparently owned and operated by the DBA in question. If the allegations are true, the DBA was smart enough to avoid leaving any electronic breadcrumbs but was then dumb enough to use a company he was identified with to make the sale.

The IT moral of the story: When the people who know your system best decide they had better not mess with it, youre probably doing something right.

Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop any time soon. He can be reached at

To read earlier retail technology opinion columns from Evan Schuman, please click here.

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