Top signs that you've been breached

Because data is often the most valuable corporate asset - especially when customer information is concerned - staying alert for potential compromise is a critical IT job. Unfortunately, looking into a potential data breach is not easy.

Because data is often the most valuable corporate asset - especially when customer information is concerned - staying alert for potential compromise is a critical IT job. Unfortunately, looking into a potential data breach is not easy.

In a typical organization there are usually a great number of privileged users accessing sensitive data on a daily basis. Where, then should organizations start looking for potential cracks? What behavior should they be on the lookout for, and when is an attack just a smokescreen, creating cover for a more targeted, critical breach?

Fortunately, the path taken by most cybercriminals and compromised insiders is not only one of least resistance, but one that causes subtle changes in system resources and network behavior, changes that an experienced security professional should be able to detect. It's often just a matter of monitoring the right area at the right time.

The first thing to look for is abnormal data access patterns, such as a user accessing data outside of work hours or while on vacation. Or most suspiciously, a user accessing data from another country when they are based in the US. Other patterns that should raise red flags: a user copying a large number of files or sending several emails with attached files to a single location, in a short period of time. While this may prove to be a cumbersome task, automation can help make it effective.

[ALSO:10 mistakes companies make after data breach]

IT should also be aware of who should have access to data. For instance, while system administrators manage the servers, keeping them up and running and functioning efficiently, they have no real need to access the data flowing through them. A system admin downloading a financial report, then, should raise a red flag for IT.

Of course, not all of these activities warrant an investigation. For instance, an employee that regularly works outside of business hours may often access data late at night, and a system administrator might download a file to test it's availability for a user. This is why understanding trends is key.

To that end, IT must look beyond user trends and stay aware of cyber attack trends. By knowing that your company's vertical and geographic location (for example, finance company in the US) is a prime target for hackers, IT can devote resources to watch for and protect against threats where they are most likely to happen.

Attack Trends

Moving beyond trends, IT should be aware of the signs of popular attack vectors, such as SQL injection. One way to catch an SQL injection breach before it goes too far is to pay attention to Web Server outbound page size. When an attacker manipulates a Web application to deliver data from the database, it results in huge HTML pages that contain the content of the database. Because SQL injection attacks often go unnoticed, the risk of significant data exfiltration is high. By being aware of the signs, IT can keep an eye out for large outbound HTML pages to catch SQL Injection attacks early and stop the loss of data quickly.

A good attacker attempts to mimic valid network traffic and system processes. Fortunately, because every additional piece of malware running on a system increases noise level, it can also be a great tip off for IT. A sudden spate of newly installed programs, automated processes starting and stopping, or system activity during abnormal times are all potential signs of a serious problem on the network.

Last but not least, are smokescreens. Time and again, we've seen hackers start big campaigns with a large DDoS attack in order to throw security staff off track. While IT is working to mitigate the attack and keep websites up and running, hackers can infiltrate other areas unnoticed. When dealing with a DDoS attack, remember to keep an eye on the back door as well.

It is important for IT to be aware of user and attack trends, while remaining alert for signs of a breach - both large like a DDoS, and small, like several data filled emails going to the same place around the same time. A successful compromise can result in customer data exposure, such as account credentials, credit card data or Social Security numbers; however with a little research and a lot of observation, IT can stop data breaches, and the cybercriminals perpetuating them, in their tracks.

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