Preventing Target's Troubles: Locking the Door Against Data Breaches

NEWS ANALYSIS: A new report alleges that Target ignored its own security controls. The truth is, the door should have a lock, but someone needs to use the lock.

Data Breach

Ever since news first broke in December that U.S. retail giant Target had been the victim of a large data breach, speculation has run rampant on how the breach occurred.

Some critics pointed accusing fingers at the use of magnetic-stripe credit cards, which are not as secure as chip and PIN credit cards. There have also been reports that a memory-scraping technology known as "RAM scraper" malware was able to steal user information.

The latest insight into the breach comes by way of a new comprehensive Bloomberg Businessweek report, titled "Missed Alarms and 40 Million Stolen Credit Card Numbers: How Target Blew It."
The report involved two months of investigation and comes to some of the same basic conclusions that I reached in an eWEEK story published in January, just a few weeks after the breach was first disclosed. The big fear whenever there is a major new breach is that there is some kind of new attack—a previously unknown risk. I like to think of it as the chicken-little-sky-is-falling effect in that new attacks are scary and they undermine the security of the world we live in.

What I had suspected in January is that the Target breach was a failure of process and not a failure of technology or any new previously unknown risk. It's a conclusion that Bloomberg Businessweek came to, as well.

You see, the reality is that all modern IT payment infrastructure needs to comply with the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard (DSS. PCI DSS includes multiple layers of security technology and processes. While PCI DSS might not be perfect, it does work, and at one point in time, Target was PCI DSS-compliant.

The Bloomberg Businessweek story alleges that Target had systems in place from security vendor FireEye that did, in fact, alert the retailer to an attack. The problem is that Target didn't react to the attack warning.

"Had the company’s security team responded when it was supposed to, the theft that has since engulfed Target, touched as many as one in three American consumers, and led to an international manhunt for the hackers never would have happened at all," the Bloomberg Businessweek story states.

The truth is, we still don't know all the facts about the attack against Target, and it might be months—or even years—until we do. It is reassuring in many respects that the failure is likely not a failure of technology or some kind of new previously unknown security threat.

The threat and the failure in the Target case is likely human. Apparently, the humans didn't respond to what the technology was warning about.

In my opinion, there are a number of ways to limit the human threat, and it starts with process. If a proper process is in place, the human staff will more often than not follow the process, especially if that process has been part of stringent training.

Process alone, however, isn't enough, and that's where increased automation can come into play. Perhaps, with more automation that automatically drives process and limits risk, the alert that FireEye found at Target wouldn't have had to wait for a human to react.

The real lesson, though, in this story is one that Bob Russo, general manager of the Payment Council Industry Security Standards Council (PCI SSC), told me about back in February about PCI DSS compliance, in general.

"The standard tells you, that you need to put a lock on the door, but the people part of the equation means it's up to you to actually lock the door," Russo said.

Unless people use technology to its full effect and actually "lock the door," attacks like the Target breach are likely to continue to occur.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.