ICO turns teacher with hit-list of top data breach weaknesses

Publishes most common woes in cases it has examined

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) is burnishing its credentials as a centre of best practice by publishing a hit-list of the top security weaknesses that are the root cause of many of the data breaches it investigates.

Protecting Personal Data in Online Services: Learning from the Mistakes of Others serves as an outline of the top issues, each of which is accompanied by an analysis with recommendations on remediation. The ICO doesn't rank the security vulnerabilities in terms of their seriousness, but some are so basic the point is that simple failings are often the most accommodating to attackers.

However, it is not a coincidence that the failure to keep software up to date is first on the list - if any failing was to make number one it would be this - followed by a lack of protection against SQL injection, allowing unnecessary services to run while not de-commissioning others, insecure password storage, a lack of encryption in online communication, poor network segmentation and design, storing data in accessible locations, and the over-use of default credentials such as passwords.

Although some of this will sound obvious the list is actually a very good place to start. The technical discussion is also concise and clear.

"In just the past couple of months we have already seen widespread concern over the expiry of support for Microsoft XP and the uncovering of the security flaw known as Heartbleed. While these security issues may seem complex, it is important that organisations of all sizes have a basic understanding of these types of threats and know what action they need to take to make sure their computer systems are keeping customers' information secure," said ICO group manager for technology, Simon Rice.

"Our experiences investigating data breaches on a daily basis shows that whilst some organisations are taking IT security seriously, too many are failing at the basics.

"If you're responsible for the security of your organisation's information and you think salt is just something you put on your chips, rather than a method for protecting your passwords, then our report is for you," he added.

Although mundane, many of the flaws were common in organisations that had suffered data loss or breaches, he said. Had they been more aware of some or all of these issues, many of the breaches would have been avoided.

The initiative is part of a wider attempt by the ICO to move away from being seen simply as a punishment bureau whose rulings are examined in detail only by the organisations directly involved in rulings. That has had some effect on the security behaviour of specific types of organisation, particularly in the public sector, but mainly to change the way organisations treat niche issues such as encrypting consumer data.

Another recent example of its widening role was the ICO head's warning over firms using Windows XP, the sort of advice that would once have been considered beyond the organisation's remit.

The ICO's Simon Rice plans a series of blogs on the issues raised by the report throughout this week.

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