Industry searches for lessons after RSA breach

Security company RSA's revelation that its network had been breached and information relating to its SecurID one-time password technology stolen has left customers and industry experts with more questions than answers.

In a statement posted on Thursday, the company warned that the attackers had obtained information relating to its SecurID technology, which may have weakened the security provided by the system. SecurID devices are used by many companies to add security to virtual private networks (VPNs) and by banks to further secure customers' remote access to their accounts. RSA is holding calls with customers to explain the incident and provide guidance, the company says.


"This information could potentially be used to reduce the effectiveness of a current two-factor authentication implementation as part of a broader attack," the company stated in its Thursday post on the attack. "We are very actively communicating this situation to RSA customers and providing immediate steps for them to take to strengthen their SecurID implementations."

In its filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the company's specific guidance focused on recommending that companies minimize the number of workers who have access administrator accounts, protect those administrators against social engineering, and enforce strong passwords, suggesting that RSA does believe that the technology's effectiveness is undermined.

Security experts recommended that other security and infrastructure companies look to their own systems and tighten up security. RSA's contention that the attack is an advanced persistent threat, or APT, could mean that the company believes a government may be behind the attack, says Steven Adair, a security researcher with the Shadowserver Foundation, a group that tracks cyber attacks and botnets.

"If I was a company that dealt with encryption and secure communications, I would take a good close look at my systems and perhaps look to RSA for some information and lessons learned," he says. "These types of attackers don't normally start and stop at one organization."

Adair and other experts have also tried to damp down speculation about the attack. RSA can help customers make certain they are secure and account for the flaw, which is the responsible approach, says Peter Schlampp, vice president of product management for digital forensics firm Solera Networks.

"This is kind of similar to saying the blueprints of an airplane have been revealed to the enemy," says Schlampp. "It does not mean that airplane is going to fall out of the sky, but it does expose the way that that technology is built. It could mean that it is going to be vulnerable to attack at a later time."

The fact that RSA has outed the attack itself and that they seem to know what was taken is a good sign, says Schlammp. "In many cases, when there is a breach, the company has no idea what was exposed," he says. "And clearly RSA knows what was exposed, so that is a good thing."

RSA is far from the only company to be attacked in this way. Last year, Google accused China of attacking its systems and networks.

"This APT is a problem that a lot of large corporations are facing," says Adair. "It is fun when someone comes out and says this, but they are not in any way unique."

Read more about data protection in CSOonline's Data Protection section.

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