Data breaches eroding usefulness of personal identification, argues new analysis

Criminals mining identifiers such as social security numbers

The number of personal records compromised by data breaches has reached such proportions that once important identifiers such as US social security numbers could soon stop being a reliable way of authenticating people, a new analysis by NSS Labs has suggested.

The world according to Why Your Data Breach is My Problem by security researchers Stefan Frei and Bob Walder is a depressing if not downright worrying one where breaches have stopped being frightening exceptions and become almost normal.

This has bred a mixture of complacency and organisational inertia; NSS Labs is not the first to point out the extraordinary statistic that at least half of the largest data breaches yet recorded happened in 2013. This is surely not simply a matter of better detection - criminals really are going after personal data like miners drawn to a bizarre digital gold rush.

But as the report also makes clear, the long-term accumulation of large data breaches could be to fatally undermine the usefulness of supposedly private personal data itself. If criminals keep mining huge amounts of personal data from thefts, it will eventually become difficult for anyone to authenticate themselves using today's identifiers.

"Cyber criminals have already been collecting and correlating breach information, and eventually they will be able to accurately identify individual users in large numbers. Therefore, in the long term, these static information attributes will no longer be considered private," said the report.

These identifiers include date of birth, gender, citizenship and social security numbers (SSNs), all static identifiers that consumers can't change after a breach as they can a password or credit card number. Static identifiers are also used by multiple services which means that a compromise of one can impact on a many others.

In the view of the authors, the idea that identifying people using this kind of data not only pre-dates the era of massive information breaches but the Internet itself. Enterprises, and especially governments, should reduce their dependence on them.

Businesses should look to hold the minimum amount of data they need, preferably using dynamic identifiers that don't put a user's identity at risk in the long term, the authors recommend. Meanwhile all users at risk - those whose accounts have been compromised - should be properly re-authenticated.

"The continuing large-scale erosion of privacy related to data once considered confidential poses a challenge not only to the industry but to society as well," said the authors.

"Governments and the industry should consider setting up a trusted clearing-house that systematically collects and analyses breached data in order to notify and consult the operators of services at risk and to help users assess their risk."

The NSS Labs perspective on data breaches is a reminder that an industry still arguing over notification laws has a huge amount of work to do. One firm, SafeNet, has even funded an attempt to rate breaches on a Richter-like scale beyond simply looking at the number of records compromised.

Regardless of size and apparent seriousness, Why Your Data Breach is My Problem is a reminder that the data breaches of the last year will not be victimless crimes. The serious cumulative effect of breached data might not yet have shown its full destructive effects.

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