Sony must learn from PlayStation Network attacks: Sophos, Norton

Encryption, early warning systems and patches needed

Sony should take a long hard look at encryption and other security measures if it is to ensure the safety and privacy of its users, two security experts have said.

While Sony’s PlayStation Network (PSN) and music streaming service Qriocity are still offline, the company has offered registered users in the US and UK free identity theft protection, which includes alerts of possible security breaches, identity theft insurance policy per user, and hands-on help from fraud investigators.

Although security experts have said that these are positive measures, they also emphasised the importance of prevention rather than cure.

Sophos Australia senior technology consultant, Sean Richmond, told Computerworld Australia that the compromise of Sony’s 77 million customers’ personal details could have been avoided if the data was encrypted.

“Sony had the tables that contained credit card data encrypted, so why not treat customer's personally identifiable information [PII] in the same way?” he said.

“By encrypting the PII, regardless of what compliance regulations say should be encrypted, they may have been able to avoid actually leaking any data.”

Richmond also said that Sony should employ some form of data leakage detection, such as an alert system that goes off when a large number of records are accessed, which would give administrators a chance to investigate if something was wrong before the data is extracted.

“In several recent cases where an intrusion has occurred, whether a sophisticated targeted attack, an opportunistic result of malware infection, or just an employee with the ability to copy data to removable storage, the fact that a lot of sensitive data is being exfiltrated or accessed should have set off alarms,” Richmond said.

“Doing everything possible to prevent intrusion is part of the solution, and I would expect this to be an area of focus for Sony now that the cost of compensation and notification is directly measurable in the share price.”

Ensuring applications and servers were patched against well-known vulnerabilities was also essential in preventing attackers from gaining a foothold in the network.

While Richmond was critical of Sony’s security, he said the appointment of a chief security information officer (CSIO) was a positive step in providing co-ordination to what is a “vital part” of Sony's business.

He also advised continuing customers to use prepaid credit cards instead, which would limit their exposure to identity theft and help avoid fraudulent activity affecting their credit rating.

Norton US cybersecurity advisor, Adam Palmer, said that while he could not speculate on the specifics of the Sony data breach, companies who hold large amounts of public data had to remember that threats were coming from every direction.

“By taking precautions against the discovery, capture and exfiltration of data, organisations can significantly bolster their defences against attacks,” he said.

“We strongly encourage organisations to follow information protection best practices to avoid data loss, including assess risks by identifying and classifying confidential information, educating employees on information protection policies and procedures, then hold them accountable.”

Palmer also suggested companies should deploy data loss prevention, encryption and endpoint security technologies that enable policy compliance and enforcement, proactively encrypt laptops and mobile devices to minimise consequences of a lost device, and integrate information protection practices into business processes.

In addition, he said speculation that hacktivist group Anonymous may be responsible for the attacks – after a file named ‘Anonymous’ was found on an internal Sony server – raises the question of the group’s motives.

"These individuals are not ‘hacktivists’, they are criminals,” Palmer said.

“From a purely US legal standpoint, the unauthorised access of another party's computer is a crime.

"In the physical world, we refer to people as burglars, but in the digital world, we sometimes let the same people hide behind the sanitised word `hacker'.

“This grants a false note of legitimacy to behaviour that is in fact unethical or even criminal."

Got a security tip-off? Contact Hamish Barwick at hamish_barwick at

Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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