Are breaches inevitable?

Security managers have to do a lot more to stay a step ahead of determined hackers.

Is there a reason that data breaches have been happening at a rapid clip lately? And is there more that we, as security managers, should be doing to make sure that our own companies don't join the ranks of the breached?

Home Depot is the latest company to make headlines for a potentially big data breach, and it just might be the biggest one yet. The current record holder is Target, and we've more recently seen the company that owns grocery store chains Supervalu, Albertsons, Acme Markets, Jewel-Osco and Shaw's compromised by hackers. J.P. Morgan and four other major banks appear to have fallen victim to security breaches. UPS stores were also hit by hackers, and several hundred Norwegian companies were compromised. These victims have joined the ranks of Neiman-Marcus, Michael's, Sally Beauty, P.F. Chang's and Goodwill. What's going on?

The motivation for attacks like these is usually financial. The attackers are stealing credit card and debit card numbers, along with personal information, which they then sell in underground markets. We don't yet know whether this is the case with the banks that were hit; those attacks may have been politically motivated, or we may learn that fraudulent transactions were used to steal money. In any case, there seems to be a big jump in electronic data theft for profit. But the stolen information is only valuable for a few days, and its value diminishes rapidly by the hour. Some security researchers are saying that this loss of value is motivating today's data thieves to move quickly. Another factor may be Microsoft's termination of support for Windows XP, which could be prompting hackers to go for one last all-out heist to grab what they can while many systems are still vulnerable. Perhaps, knowing that all the vulnerabilities of Windows XP would soon vanish, our thieves had a fire sale.

But I suspect there is more to the story. Most big businesses use standard security procedures and technologies that have been around for years, if not decades. Many of these defenses have not kept up with current threats. Take antivirus, for example. Signature-based malware detection has long been ineffective against modern malware, yet most companies continue to rely on it as a key defense. We know from the details of some of the retail breaches that those who have implemented advanced heuristic malware detection have ignored the alarms set off by the point-of-sale malware (for reasons I cannot fathom). Patching will always be a game of catch-up, with the attackers having the upper hand. And password-based authentication will evidently be with us forever, much as I might rail against it. Attackers use all of these to get through their victims' defenses.

The simple fact of the matter is that attackers will always have several vulnerabilities to choose from at any potential victim they want to target. And security managers, even those who are really good at their jobs, will never be able to close every single hole. And it only takes one.

So if traditional information security practices are not enough, what else can we do? I've been giving that question a lot of thought lately, and I think part of the answer is to evolve our security technologies, just as the attackers evolve their techniques. That heuristic behavior-based malware detection technology I keep talking about is pretty cool, but is it still cutting-edge? It's been around for three or four years. Is there anything newer out there? And how can we choose the right technologies that are going to be effective against emerging threats but still stand the test of time so their manufacturers will be around three years from now?

There are some new products starting to go to market, and venture capitalists are funding a lot of new security technology. I think we should all keep a close eye on them. I'm beginning to believe that in the cutthroat rivalry between attacker and defender, the best technology wins. The only way we can keep one step ahead of today's hackers is to take two steps forward and advance our defensive capabilities to the point where we can reliably repel, or at least detect, today's data thieves.

This week's journal is written by a real security manager, "J.F. Rice," whose name and employer have been disguised for obvious reasons. Contact him at

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