Data Breaches Show Difficulty of Defenders’ Task

When attackers broke into the network of the University of Maryland last month, the university’s wasn’t sure how to react. The organization had never had a major security incident before, and this one qualified as major: 310,000 Social Security numbers and other information was gone. And then three weeks later, it happened again.

Wallace Loh, the president of the University of Maryland, told the Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday that the university’s security and IT team was caught off guard when the attackers infiltrated the college’s network on Feb. 18. The attackers made their initial intrusion into the network by uploading a piece of malware to one of the university’s Web sites that is designed to allow users to upload photos. Once on the network, the attackers began to move laterally and eventually ended up finding the directory for the university’s IT management team and was able to change the passwords they found there.

The attackers, who had come in over the Tor network to hide their identity and location, then located a database that stored Social Security numbers of students, alumni and others, as well as university IDs, and downloaded 310,000 of them.

“It turns out, because we’ve never been hacked before, we were just flying by the seat of our pants,” Loh told the committee in his testimony.

Within 24 hours of discovering the breach, the university had disclosed the breach publicly, contacted credit-monitoring services and begun notifying the people who were affected by the breach. The university got in touch with the FBI, who came in to investigate the attack. Three weeks later, while the FBI was still digging through the details of the Feb. 18 breach, attackers again compromised Maryland’s network and had access to quite a bit of sensitive information, more than was at risk during the first attack, in fact. This time, however, the attackers simply posted one victim’s personal details to Reddit as a show of force before the FBI investigators were able to mitigate the attack.

In the wake of the first attack, Loh said that the university’s IT team had taken a number of steps to harden its network and ensure that the organization was no longer storing data it didn’t need.

“We have migrated almost all of our Web sites to the cloud,” he said. “What we have done immediately is purge almost all unnecessary data. We have purged approximately two hundred and twenty-five thousand names from our records. We have isolated sensitive information. And the cost is very, very high.”

That cost is one that many organizations around the country are feeling. Target, the victim of one of the larger breaches in history last year, is still feeling the repercussions from the attack, which affected more than 100 million people. John Mulligan, the vice president and CFO of Target, also spoke before the Commerce Committee Wednesday, and said that the company is going through many of the same machinations that Maryland did, including increasing segmentation on its networks. Mulligan also said that the company is expanding its use of two-factor authentication on its networks and will, by early next year, begin issuing and accepting chip-enabled credit cards.

The Target data breach and the attack on the University of Maryland illustrate a truism that many in the security industry have known for years.

“The people who play offense will always be one step ahead of those who play defense,” Loh said.

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