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Equifax Data Breach: 11 Reasons Why It Is Worse Than You Think

Equifax logo Equifax, one of the three major credit reporting agencies, announced on September 7 a massive data breach where criminals accessed the company's computer systems. How bad is it? It is instructive to analyze the text of Equifax's breach announcement:

"... a cybersecurity incident potentially impacting approximately 143 million U.S. consumers. Criminals exploited a U.S. website application vulnerability to gain access to certain files. Based on the company's investigation, the unauthorized access occurred from mid-May through July 2017. The company has found no evidence of unauthorized activity on Equifax's core consumer or commercial credit reporting databases.

The information accessed primarily includes names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some instances, driver's license numbers. In addition, credit card numbers for approximately 209,000 U.S. consumers, and certain dispute documents with personal identifying information for approximately 182,000 U.S. consumers, were accessed."

First, this is huge. Do the math 143 million persons is about 44 percent of the United States population of 325 million on July 4, 2017. So, almost half of the population was affected. Not good. But, there's more to this than size.

Second, the announcement stated "approximately." So, the true number could be lower or higher. The vagueness suggests that Equifax doesn't really know exactly how many consumers were affected. Not good. And, other details support this assumption that Equifax really doesn't know.

Third, the announcement stated "accessed." During the 10+ years I've written this blog, I've read dozens or hundreds of breach announcements. Many use this term. While the term may accurately describe what's Equifax knows, it also can be misleading. Criminals don't access companies' systems simply to window-shop or read files. They access systems to download and steal valuable information they can either use to make money, or resell to others. It's what online criminals do.

Fourth, the data elements accessed stolen allow criminals to do a lot of damage. That might include: a) obtain fraudulent loans or credit in breach victims' names; b) impersonate breach victims (it's called pretexting) to access online accounts; c) with online access withdraw money from victims' bank accounts; and much more. With online access, criminals can change passwords and take over victims' accounts effectively locking out victims.

Fifth, the breach investigation isn't finished:

"Equifax discovered the unauthorized access on July 29 of this year and acted immediately to stop the intrusion. The company promptly engaged a leading, independent cybersecurity firm that has been conducting a comprehensive forensic review to determine the scope of the intrusion, including the specific data impacted. Equifax also reported the criminal access to law enforcement and continues to work with authorities. While the company's investigation is substantially complete, it remains ongoing and is expected to be completed in the coming weeks."

The announcement didn't state when Equifax expected the investigation to be finished. Days? Weeks? Months? Not good.

Equifax hired an outside, independent technology firm to investigate its breach. That's what companies usually do during their post-breach response. This tiny bit of good news is quickly overshadowed by the bad. Without a completed breach investigation, Equifax can't really know whether the breach was caused by a technical systems problem, employee error, management oversight lapses, a sloppy or incompetent subcontractor, something else, or a combination of items. Only after a completed breach investigation can Equifax implement one or several fixes so this won't happen again. Not good.

Sixth, without knowing how criminals accessed their systems it is unlikely Equifax also can't know with certainty what data elements about consumers were stolen. More data elements could have been stolen, perhaps entire credit reports. Not good.

Seventh, it seems that Equifax's intrusion detection systems failed. Just look at the timeline. The breach started in mid-May and Equifax discovered it near the end of July. So, criminals had at least 2 full months to steal whatever they could find. Not good. Plus, after discovering the breach it would take Equifax another 5 weeks later to announce it. Why the delays? The breach announcement doesn't explain why. Not good.

Eighth, Equifax seems to take shortcuts with its breach notification:

"Equifax has established a dedicated website, www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, to help consumers determine if their information has been potentially impacted and to sign up for credit file monitoring and identity theft protection."

Setting up a website to convey breach updates to consumers is a good thing, but using the site to notify consumers about the breach is not good for two reasons: a) the site requires consumers to enter many of the same sensitive, valuable data elements criminals want to steal; and b) it forces consumers to trust that the breach site is secure, when we know that the breach investigation is incomplete. This is a breach notification failure.

In the 10+ years I've written this blog, trustworthy companies notify breach victims via postal mail. Why won't Equifax notify all breach victims directly via postal mail? It has consumers' residential addresses in its databases. (That is a benefit for its lending customers.) So, the lack of data is not an excuse. Plus, the credit reporting agency is willing to notify some consumers directly:

"In addition to the website, Equifax will send direct mail notices to consumers whose credit card numbers or dispute documents with personal identifying information were impacted."

Rather than notify all breach victims directly, Equifax seems to want to take shortcuts. Maybe it is to save money, laziness, or poor decisions by its executives. The announcement doesn't explain why, so consumers are left to draw their own conclusions. Not good.

Ninth, technologists have questioned the security of Equifax's new breach site. Ars Technica reported:

"... the website www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/, which Equifax created to notify people of the breach, is highly problematic for a variety of reasons. It runs on a stock installation WordPress, a content management system that doesn't provide the enterprise-grade security required for a site that asks people to provide their last name and all but three digits of their Social Security number. The TLS certificate doesn't perform proper revocation checks. Worse still, the domain name isn't registered to Equifax, and its format looks like precisely the kind of thing a criminal operation might use to steal people's details..."

Reportedly, the domain name registration problem was fixed on Sunday. Still, Equifax's post-breach response appears amateurish. Meanwhile, data security problems persisted in its main website. According to Ars Technica:

"... in the hours immediately following the breach disclosure, the main Equifax website was displaying debug codes, which for security reasons, is something that should never happen on any production server, especially one that is a server or two away from so much sensitive data. A mistake this serious does little to instill confidence company engineers have hardened the site against future devastating attacks."

So, Equifax hasn't completed its breach investigation, doesn't know how its systems were hacked, has vulnerabilities in its main site, but wants consumers to trust that its breach site is secure. Not good.

Tenth, the Equifax announcement promoted its credit monitoring service (emphasis added):

"Equifax has established a dedicated website... to help consumers determine if their information has been potentially impacted and to sign up for credit file monitoring and identity theft protection. The offering, called TrustedID Premier, includes 3-Bureau credit monitoring of Equifax, Experian and TransUnion credit reports; copies of Equifax credit reports; the ability to lock and unlock Equifax credit reports; identity theft insurance; and Internet scanning for Social Security numbers - all complimentary to U.S. consumers for one year."

One year? Are Equifax executives serious? Stolen consumers' credentials don't magically lose value after one year. Criminals will use stolen credentials (e.g., name, address, Social Security Number, birth date, etc.) as long as they can. Criminals will resell stolen data to other criminals as long as the data has value. In my opinion, Equifax should provide complimentary lifetime credit monitoring indefinitely to all breach victims.

Why lifetime? Because the data elements accessed stolen have ongoing value. The cynical part of me wonders if some finance executives have done the math. As long as credit reporting agency executives believe that one year of free credit monitoring will appease breach victims, it's cheaper to pay that cost (plus a few out-of-court settlements), rather than implement more robust data security.

Eleventh, there is a history of questionable decisions by Equifax executives. In 2007, it paid a $2.7 million fine for violating federal credit laws. In 2009, it paid a $65,000 fine to the state of Indiana for violating the state's security freeze law. In 2012, Equifax and some of its customers paid $1.6 million to settle allegations of improper list sales. Earlier this year, Equifax and TransUnion paid $23.1 million to settle allegations of deceptive advertising about credit scores.

This history provides some context to news reports that three Equifax executives sold about $1.8 million in stock after the breach was discovered and before the public breach announcement. Equifax stock fell about 13 percent after the breach announcement. The company said on Thursday that these executives didn't know about the intrusion when they sold shares. Even if true, the optics of this look absolutely terrible.

The whole sordid affair should be a reminder to consumers that we are the product. Credit reporting agencies' true customers are lenders - the companies that lend money and make loans to consumers. Equifax makes its money selling credit reports to lenders.

What to make of this? I see several considerations for consumers:

  1. Assume the worst. Every time you hear or read the word "accessed" by Equifax, replace it with "stolen." Then, make your data security decisions accordingly.
  2. If you don't trust the security of Equifax's breach site, then call the company instead via the hotline listed in the breach announcement (preferably using a landline phone) to see if you are affected.
  3. Carefully consider the advantages and disadvantages of Equifax's offer of free credit monitoring and identity theft protection. Equifax has been criticized for forcing arbitration on consumers who accept the free credit monitoring offer. In a September 11th update in its breach site, Equifax reversed course and said the arbitration clause and class-action waiver don't apply in this incident. Regardless, read the fine print before signing up. They may try to re-insert it later. If you don't know what it is, learn about arbitration. A variety of companies have inserted these clauses into their user agreements policies. You'll need to learn about arbitration anyway in order to make informed purchase decisions about other products and services.
  4. If you don't need credit, consider a Security Freeze to lock down your Equifax credit reports. Then, Equifax can't sell your credit report to lenders. You can do this at all three major credit reporting agencies. I did this several years ago after a data breach by a former employer. Know that a Security Freeze is not a cure-all, since it won't stop data breaches and it won't stop all forms of identity theft and fraud. To learn more, this blog has plenty of information about credit reporting agencies, credit monitoring services, fraud alerts for your credit reports, and security freezes.
  5. If you dislike Equifax's post-breach response, then contact your elected officials and demand that they pressure Equifax to do the right thing: a) notify all breach victims directly via postal mail; and b) implement better data security.
  6. Equifax's post-breach response makes me question whether the company is really up to the data security task -- it's responsibility -- to adequately protect consumers' sensitive information. All credit reporting agencies are high-value targets by criminals. If Equifax's executives didn't understand this before, they should now -- and take actions to demonstrate to consumers they realize the seriousness of the breach. Words are not enough.
  7. Consumers lack choices. Citizens cannot opt in nor opt out of the data collection by credit reporting agencies. (Consumers can opt out of pre-approved credit offers, but can't opt out of the data collection. There's a difference.) Also, the Equifax breach highlights the hypocrisy of pundits and politicians who object to the mandate within Obamacare (e.g., the Affordable Care Act) legislation -- some called it socialism -- while remaining remain silent about a similarly socialistic mandate with credit reporting.

While writing a post recently about misdeeds at Wells Fargo, I asked the question: "How much damage can one bank do?" Now, I find myself asking a similar question about Equifax: "How much damage can one company do?" Credit and lending are essential to the United States economy. In my opinion, all credit reporting agencies should have NSA-level data security for their networks and computer systems. The data they archive is that critical.

And: if you can't protect it, don't collect it. It's that simple.

As more issues emerge about this breach, I will address them in subsequent posts. What are your opinions of the Equifax breach? Did you lock down your credit reports with a Security Freeze?

Comments

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George

Update: ZD Net debunked claims which blamed open-source software for the breach:

" According to an unsubstantiated report by equity research firm Baird, citing no evidence, the blame falls on the open-source server framework, Apache Struts. The firm's source, per one report, is believed to be Equifax. Apache Struts is a popular open-source software programming Model-View-Controller (MVC) framework for Java. It is not, as some headlines have had it, a vendor software program.

It's also not proven that Struts was the source of the hole the hackers drove through. In fact, several headlines -- some of which have since been retracted -- all source a single quote by a non-technical analyst from an Equifax source.

Not only is that troubling journalistically, it's problematic from a technical point of view. In case you haven't noticed, Equifax appears to be utterly and completely clueless about their own technology. Equifax's own data breach detector isn't just useless: it's untrustworthy."

http://www.zdnet.com/article/equifax-blames-open-source-software-for-its-record-breaking-security-breach/

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