Equifax disclosed on Monday, October 2, that 2.5 more persons than originally announced were affected by its massive data breach earlier this year. According to the Equifax breach website:
"... cybersecurity firm Mandiant has completed the forensic portion of its investigation of the cybersecurity incident disclosed on September 7 to finalize the consumers potentially impacted... The completed review determined that approximately 2.5 million additional U.S. consumers were potentially impacted, for a total of 145.5 million. Mandiant did not identify any evidence of additional or new attacker activity or any access to new databases or tables. Instead, this additional population of consumers was confirmed during Mandiant’s completion of the remaining investigative tasks and quality assurance procedures built into the investigative process."
The September breach announcement said that persons outside the United States may have been affected. The October 2nd update addressed that, too:
"The completed review also has concluded that there is no evidence the attackers accessed databases located outside of the United States. With respect to potentially impacted Canadian citizens, the company previously had stated that there may have been up to 100,000 Canadian citizens impacted... The completed review subsequently determined that personal information of approximately 8,000 Canadian consumers was impacted. In addition, it also was determined that some of the consumers with affected credit cards announced in the company’s initial statement are Canadian. The company will mail written notice to all of the potentially impacted Canadian citizens."
So, things are worse than originally announced in September: more United States citizens affected, fewer Canadian citizens affected overall but more Canadians' credit card information exposed, and we still don't know the number of United Kingdom residents affected:
"The forensic investigation related to United Kingdom consumers has been completed and the resulting information is now being analyzed in the United Kingdom. Equifax is continuing discussions with regulators in the United Kingdom regarding the scope of the company’s consumer notifications...
And, there's this statement by Paulino do Rego Barros, Jr., the newly appointed interim CEO (after former CEO Richard Smith resigned):
"... As this important phase of our work is now completed, we continue to take numerous steps to review and enhance our cybersecurity practices. We also continue to work closely with our internal team and outside advisors to implement and accelerate long-term security improvements..."
To review? That means Equifax has not finished the job of making its systems and websites more secure with security fixes based upon how the attackers broke in, which identify attacks earlier, and which prevent future breaches. As bad as this sounds, the reality is probably worse.
After testimony before Congress by former Equifax CEO Richard Smith, Wired documented "six fresh horrors" about the breach and the leisurely approach by the credit reporting agency's executives. First, this about the former CEO:
"... during Tuesday's hearing, former CEO Smith added that he first heard about "suspicious activity" in a customer-dispute portal, where Equifax tracks customer complaints and efforts to correct mistakes in their credit reports, on July 31. He moved to hire cybersecurity experts from the law firm King & Spalding to start investigating the issue on August 2. Smith claimed that, at that time, there was no indication that any customer's personally identifying information had been compromised. As it turns out, after repeated questions from lawmakers, Smith admitted he never asked at the time whether PII being affected was even a possibility. Smith further testified that he didn't ask for a briefing about the "suspicious activity" until August 15, almost two weeks after the special investigation began and 18 days after the initial red flag."
Didn't ask about PII? Geez! PII describes the set of data elements which are the most sensitive information about consumers. It's the business of being a credit reporting agency. Waited 2 weeks for a briefing? Not good either. And, that is a most generous description since some experts question whether the breach actually started in March -- about four months before the July event.
Wired reported the following about Smith's Congressional testimony and the March breach:
"Attackers initially got into the affected customer-dispute portal through a vulnerability in the Apache Struts platform, an open-source web application service popular with corporate clients. Apache disclosed and patched the relevant vulnerability on March 6... Smith said there are two reasons the customer-dispute portal didn't receive that patch, known to be critical, in time to prevent the breach. The first excuse Smith gave was "human error." He says there was a particular (unnamed) individual who knew that the portal needed to be patched but failed to notify the appropriate IT team. Second, Smith blamed a scanning system used to spot this sort of oversight that did not identify the customer-dispute portal as vulnerable. Smith said forensic investigators are still looking into why the scanner failed."
Geez! Sounds like a managerial failure, too. Nobody followed up with the unnamed persons responsible for patching the portal? And Equifax executives took a leisurely (and perhaps lackadaisical) approach to protecting sensitive information about consumers:
"When asked by representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois about what data Equifax encrypts in its systems, Smith admitted that the data compromised in the customer-dispute portal was stored in plaintext and would have been easily readable by attackers... It’s unclear exactly what of the pilfered data resided in the portal versus other parts of Equifax’s system, but it turns out that also didn’t matter much, given Equifax's attitude toward encryption overall. “OK, so this wasn’t [encrypted], but your core is?” Kinzinger asked. “Some, not all," Smith replied. "There are varying levels of security techniques that the team deploys in different environments around the business."
Geez! So, we now have confirmation that the "core" information -- the most sensitive data about consumers -- in Equifax's databases is only partially encrypted.
Context matters. In January of this year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) took punitive action against TransUnion and Equifax for deceptive marketing practices involving credit scores and related subscription services. That action included $23.1 million in fines and penalties.
Thanks to member of Congress for asking the tough questions. No thanks to Equifax executives for taking lackadaisical approaches to data security. (TransUnion, Innovis, and Experian executives: are you watching? Learning what mistakes not to repeat?) Equifax has lost my trust.
Until Equifax hardens its systems (I prefer NSA-level hardness), it shouldn't be entrusted with consumers' sensitive personal and payment information. Consumers should be able to totally opt out of credit reporting agencies that fail with data security. This would allow the marketplace to govern things and stop the corporate socialism benefiting credit reporting agencies.
What are your opinions?
[Editor's note: this post was amended on October 7 with information about the CFPB fines.]