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We often think of Equifax as a company that can be trusted to securely save and control our personal information. But as CNN Money’s Kaya Yurieff reported in September, “A huge security breach at credit reporting company Equifax has exposed sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers and addresses, of up to 143 million Americans.”
It seems that some rookie mistakes were made. However, this breach provides good lessons that can be used to protect future victims.
Splitting Up Your Security May Make for a Weaker Brand
Wired Magazine reported that Equifax started directing potential victims of the breach to a new, quickly constructed website called “equifaxsecurity2017.com.” However, “quickly” often does not mean securely built. Bugs were found in the new site, which was ostensibly designed to discuss protection from breaches.
This revelation is not a confidence builder for Equifax victims. It would have been logical to put the information on the website Equifax.com, which was already online and branded. Using the existing Equifax website would have given customers more confidence that they were getting the correct information.
One possible reason for this change to a new website might have been that Equifax did not trust its own security on its branded website. Yes, Equifax was hacked, but it was the databases containing personal information that were hacked. Normally, the main website could be secured again quickly from a backup disk.
The new website asked people to input the last six digits of their Social Security number to check if their information was compromised in the breach of Equifax servers. But the website asking for this information also had bugs.
Again, that was not a confidence builder for Equifax. Future organizations in Equifax’s situation will probably try to remain on their branded sites.
Using an Established Branded Website versus a Non-Branded Website
Nick Sweeting, a web developer, thought it strange for Equifax to set up a non-branded website. He set up “securityequifax2017.com” (note: the fake site’s name was a simple transposition of two words) to show how traffic could be driven to a wrong or malicious website. Sweeting created the site not to cause harm, but to show the potential damage a non-branded website could do.
Sweeting set up the bogus phishing site to expose vulnerabilities that existed in Equifax’s response page. “I made the site because Equifax made a huge mistake by using a domain that doesn’t have any trust attached to it [as opposed to hosting it on equifax.com],” Sweeting told The Verge.
Compounding the confusion for Equifax victims, customers were sent to Sweeting’s website when they called the Equifax help desk. One Equifax employee even tweeted Sweeting’s fake website four times. Luckily, the alternate URL was not malicious.
“A day after the breach and launch of the legitimate help website, scammers had created 194 phishing websites that shared similar addresses with equifaxsecurity2017.com,” USA Today reported on September 21.
Equifax Acknowledged that It Failed to Ensure Software Patches Were Properly Installed
According to a September 24 Wired article by Lily Hay Newman, “The fact that attackers got into Equifax’s systems through a known vulnerability with a patch available galls security analysts. But the company also acknowledged that it knew about the patch when it was first released, and had actually attempted to apply it to all its systems.”
The fact that the company failed to ensure that the patches were properly installed and tested does not bode well for any future court actions against Equifax.
Newman also quoted Michael Borohovski of Tinfoil Security, who commented on Equifax’s mistake of tweeting out the wrong website for victims of the hack: “When your social media profile is tweeting out a phishing link, that’s bad news bears.”
We like to believe that large companies holding the credit history of over 100 million Americans is incredibly strong. Sometimes, that is an illusion.
In this case, just as in the WannaCry ransomware attacks, the Equifax security breach could have been prevented if the company had installed updates on all of its systems. However, this did not happen and Equifax became the latest victim of a preventable hack.
Former Equifax CEO to Face the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs on October 4
Equifax’s former CEO, Richard Smith, is scheduled to talk with a Senate committee on October 4. Their discussions will cover Equifax’s security lapses and the Equifax executives who sold stock before this breach was discovered. Currently, there is no proof of insider trading on privileged information, but the appearance of wrongdoing is there.
One of the worst management mistakes made by Equifax in the handling of this incident was stated in CNN Money. Journalist Jackie Wattles noted that “Equifax initially asked affected customers to give up their right to sue the company in exchange for credit monitoring services.”
The concept of breaking even or making a profit during a crisis breach is unusual. Many victims viewed it as outrageous that Equifax wanted to charge fees for doing credit freezes to protect themselves from Equifax’s errors.
Additionally, the idea of giving up the ability to sue for damages in exchange of protection created a public relations nightmare. The company stock has rapidly fallen by 32%. This shows that crisis management and cyber defense failures are costly to executives who are often paid bonuses based on stock prices.
Did State-Sponsored Espionage Play a Role in the Equifax Hack?
While investigations are still continuing, the hackers who penetrated Equifax used techniques that are similar to the techniques used by nation-state hackers. Bloomberg reported, “One person briefed on the probe being conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. intelligence agencies said that there is evidence that a nation-state may have played a role, but that it doesn’t point to China. The person declined to name the country involved because the details are classified.”
Later, the same article showed that “One of the tools used by the hackers — China Chopper — has a Chinese-language interface, but is also in use outside China.” Most espionage hacks have layers to hide the true identity of the nation-state doing the hack. It will take a few more months to hopefully work towards the attribution of a nation-state identity.
The Golden Rule of Cybersecurity: Patch Now, Patch Often
If this were a humorous article, it might be worth mentioning that in Argentina, Equifax had a system running on weak credentials. Both the login and the password were “admin.”
Of course, this is not a humorous article. The havoc caused by the Equifax breach will last for years. And it could all have been avoided by simply updating the system with the new software patches.
About the Author
James R. Lint recently retired as the (GG-15) civilian director for intelligence and security, G2, U.S. Army Communications Electronics Command. He is an adjunct professor at AMU. James has been involved in cyberespionage events from just after the turn of the century in Korea supporting 1st Signal Brigade to the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis as the first government cyber intelligence analyst. He has 38 years of experience in military intelligence with the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, government contracting and civil service.
Additionally, James started the Lint Center for National Security Studies, a nonprofit charity that recently awarded its 45th scholarship for national security students and professionals. James was also elected as the 2015 national vice president for the Military Intelligence Corps Association. He has also served in the Department of Energy’s S&S Security Office after his active military career in the Marine Corps for seven years and 14 years in the Army. His military assignments include South Korea, Germany and Cuba, in addition to numerous CONUS locations. In 2017, he was appointed to the position of Adjutant for The American Legion, China Post 1. James has authored a book published in 2013, “Leadership and Management Lessons Learned,” a book published in 2016 “8 Eyes on Korea, A Travel Perspective of Seoul, Korea,” and a new book in 2017 “Secrets to Getting a Federal Government Job.”