The Security Risks of Industry Interconnections

2014 has seen a rash of high profile security breaches involving theft of personal data and credit card numbers from retailers Neiman Marcus, Home Depot, Target, Michaels, online auction site eBay, and grocery chains SuperValu and Hannaford among others. Hackers were able to steal hundreds of millions of credit and debit cards; from the information disclosed, this accounted for 40 million cards from Target, 350,000 from Neiman Marcus, up to 2.6 million from Michaels, 56 million from Home Depot.

The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) reports that to date in 2014, 644 security breaches have occurred, an increase of 25.3 percent over last year. By far the majority of breaches targeted payment card data along with personal information like social security numbers and email addresses, and personal health information, and it estimates that over 78 million records were exposed.

Malware installed using third party credentials was found to be among the primary cause of the breaches in post-security analysis. Banks and financial institutions are critically dependent on their IT infrastructure and are also constantly exposed to attacks because of Sutton’s Law. Networks are empowering because they allow us to interact with other employees, customers and vendors. However, it is often the case that industry partners have a looser view of security and thus may be more vulnerable to being breached; exploiting industry interconnection is a favorite tactic used by attackers. After all, a frontal brute force attack on a well-defended large corporation’s doors are unlikely to be successful.

The Weak Link

The attackers target subcontractors, which are usually small companies with comparatively weaker IT security defenses and minimal cyber security expertise on hand. These small companies are also proud of their large customer and keen to highlight their connection. Likewise, companies often provide a surprising number of information meant for vendors on public sites for which logins are not necessary. This makes the first step of researching the target and their industry interconnections easier for the attacker.

The next step is to compromise the subcontractor network and find employee data. Social networking sites liked LinkedIn are a boon to attackers and used to create lists of IT admin and management staff who are likely to be privileged users. In West Virginia, state agencies were victims when malware infected computers of users whose email addresses ended with The next step is to gain access to the contractors’ privileged users workstation, and from there, to breach the final target. In one retailer breach, the network credentials given to a heating, air conditioning and refrigeration contractor were stolen after hackers mounted a phishing attack, and were able to successfully lodge malware in the contractor’s systems, two months before they attacked the retailer, their ultimate target.

Good Practices, Good Security

Organizations can no longer assume that their enterprise is enforcing effective security standards; likewise, they cannot make the same assumption about their partners, vendors and clients, or anyone who has access to their networks. A Fortune 500 company has access to resources to acquire and manage security systems that a smaller vendor might not. So how can the enterprise protect itself while making the industry interconnections it needs to thrive?

Risk Assessments: When establishing a relationship with a vendor, partner, or client, consider vetting their security practices a part of due diligence. Before network access can be granted, the third party should be subject to a security appraisal that assesses where security gaps can occur (weak firewalls or security monitoring systems, lack of proper security controls). An inventory of the third party’s systems and applications and its control of those can help the enterprise develop an effective vendor management profile. Furthermore, it provides the enterprise with visibility into information that will be shared and who has access to that information.

Controlled Access: Third party access should be restricted and compartmentalized only to a segment of the network, and prevented access to other assets. Likewise, the organization can require that vendors and third parties use particular technologies for remote access, which enables the enterprise to catalog which connections are being made to the network.

Active Monitoring: Organizations should actively monitor network connections; SIEM software can help identify when remote access or other unauthorized software is installed, alert the organization when unauthorized connections are attempted, and establish baselines for “typical” versus unusual or suspicious user behaviors which can presage the beginning of a breach

Ongoing Audits: Vendors given access to the network should be required to submit to periodic audits; this allows both the organization and the vendor to assess security strengths and weaknesses and ensure that the vendor is in compliance with the organization’s security policies.

What next?

Financial institutions often implicitly trust vendors. But just as good fences make good neighbors, vendor audits produce good relationships. Initial due diligence and enforcing sound security practices with third parties can eliminate or mitigate security failures. Routine vendor audits send the message that the entity is always monitoring the vendor to ensure that it is complying with IT security practices.