On Wednesday, The New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) announced their first ever cybersecurity charges against title insurance company First American for a data breach that exposed hundreds of millions of records containing sensitive information over the course of nearly five years.
The First American data breach initially occurred in October 2014 after an error in an application update left 16 years worth of mortgage title insurance records available to anyone online without authentication. These documents included information such as social security numbers, tax records, bank statements, and drivers license images. The error went undetected until December 2018, when First American conducted a penetration test that discovered the venerability. According to the NYDFS, however, First American did not report the breach and left the documents exposed for another 6 months, until a cybersecurity journalist discovered and published about the breach.
Charges against First American for their role in the data breach is the first time the NYDFS is enforcing the department’s cybersecurity regulations established in 2017. The regulation requires financial organizations with a license to operate in New York to establish and follow a comprehensive cybersecurity policy, provide training for all employees, implement effective access controls, and conduct regular venerability tests in line with a cybersecurity risk assessment.
First American is facing 6 charges, including failing to follow their internal cybersecurity policy, misclassifying the exposed documents as “low” severity, as well as failing to investigate and report the breach in a timely manner.
While the fine for a violation of the regulation is only up to $1,000, the NYDFS considers each exposed document as a separate violation. So, with up to 885 million records potentially exposed, First American could be looking at millions of dollars in fines if the charges stick.
News of the charges should serve as a wake-up call to U.S. organizations unconcerned with cybersecurity regulations. While the U.S. does not have any federal regulations, and there are a number of state regulations that have gone into effect in the past 5 years. This is merely one of what is likely many companies that will face enforcement unless they take steps now to ensure compliance.
The 2013 Target breach served as a wake up call for many businesses about the importance of proper cybersecurity practices. Since then, organizations have devoted a lot of time and resources into putting security controls and trainings in the place to better protect their data. Yet, one piece that is often overlooked is vendor management. In fact, the Target breach occurred when the credentials of an HVAC vendor were stolen and used to gain access to Target’s network. Traditionally, vendor management involves creating a security agreement and routinely accessing vendors’ security practices, but doesn’t always include cyber awareness training. However, given that credentials are regularly stolen through social engineering tactics, organizations need to start focusing on training their critical vendors to be more cyber aware.
With the effort often involved in implementing training programs for employees, it may seem daunting to also train vendors. However, since vendors usually have limited access and have very specific roles, vendor cyber awareness programs should be customized to the role they play within your organization. While you should ensure that the Vendor does have a comprehensive awareness program for all employees, you should consider adding your own training to those individuals who are touching your account — including their accounts payable or receivable units — and tailor the training to the specific risks they present.
Take the Target breach as an example. Hackers gained access to the Target network through credentials to a vendor portal. In order to help prevent the breach, Target could have taken the following steps: first, require strong authentication, including multi-factor authentication, to access the Target system; second, receive verification that the vendor has a training program in place for all employees; third, identify the individuals within the vendor’s organization that need to access it’s system; finally, provide those individuals adequate, role-based training on topics like password strength, business email compromise, and phishing.
The importance of ensuring your vendors are cyber aware cannot be overstated, and should even be a requirement before entering into any agreement. While this training doesn’t need to be as extensive as it is for your employees, it should be focused on the individuals with access, and the role those individuals play within your organizations. Anything less than that could leave you vulnerable to unauthorized access.
Over the past few years, ransomware has become a more and more common form of cyber attack. In part, this is because hackers have started to sell pre-made packages that anyone can buy on the dark web and run without a lot of technical know-how. While this form of ransomware allows malicious code to spread automatically, it’s not always the most sophisticated form of attack. This may be why human-operated ransomware has become more popular over the past few months. Unlike pre-coded ransomware that blindly crawls through infected networks, human-operated ransomware attacks tend to play more of the long game. Once attackers gain access to a victim’s system, they take their time to gather as much intel as possible about their target, often waiting months before launching their attack. This helps them gain access to other areas within the network and ultimately make it extremely difficult for the victim to put a stop to the attack once it starts.
The key to combatting these more sophisticated attacks, then, is to stop them from accessing your systems in the first place. Often, ransomware attacks gain access by taking the path of least resistance, such as unpatched applications. This has been an especially big problem for the healthcare industry recently. As hospitals continue to be overwhelmed by COVID-19, they have not had the time and resources to safeguard security systems and update applications quickly.
For example, recently human-operated ransomware attackers are using out of date virtual private networks (VPNs) to gain access. In fact, Microsoft identified “several dozens of hospitals” that were vulnerable to attack because of outdated VPN applications. To help combat this issue, Microsoft has developed a new alert system to notify hospitals that have unpatched applications and other vulnerabilities.
With ransomware attackers playing the long game, it’s vitally important to ensure your systems and applications are patched and that you fix any known vulnerabilities. In addition, any potential compromise to your system, however small, should be investigated and dealt with as soon as possible. Otherwise, hackers can spend months moving throughout your networks undetected and make it near impossible to remove once they launch their attack.
Cybersecurity tools are important for lowering the risk of a data breach. However, if those tools are put in place without considering business outcomes, it can harm organizational goals and even, in some cases, cost lives. In the healthcare industry, for example, steps taken to recover from a data breach can lead to a drop in the quality of care. However, no matter the industry, if cybersecurity tools and businesses goals are not aligned, there will almost always be negative consequences for that business.
A study published last year in the Health Services Research Journal found that after a hospital experienced a data breach there was, on average, an additional 36 deaths from heart attacks per 10,000 patients. One of the main factors that contributes to this is a delay in treatment because of new security policies following a breach. Common tools used after a breach include additional sign-in measures such as multi-factor authentication, or automatic logout after a period of inactivity. So if someone comes into a hospital with chest pain, for example, these extra security measures delay the ability for doctors and nurses to register the patient and access health records. This is especially important to consider now, given that hacks against the healthcare industry have risen since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Of course, this isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be any additional security measures in place after a breach Instead, the point is that it is important to align cybersecurity processes with overall business goals — even when the stakes aren’t as high as saving a life. The key is to begin with your desired business outcomes and look at the cybersecurity risks that can negatively impact those goals. Then, only once you know your specific risks do you design or apply tools that limit those risks without negatively impacting the business. This requires strong governance and communication between IT and business leadership. Failure to focus on the interplay between cybersecurity and business goals both weakens the security posture and weakens business outcomes. And that’s not a prescription for a healthy strategy.
A hacker got into your system, but you spot the problem before the hacker has a chance to carry out an attack. Best case scenario, right? Well, it all depends on what you do next. The government of Florence, Alabama found themselves in this exact situation, but their response is now costing them nearly $300,000. Here’s what happened:
In late May, cybersecurity report Brian Krebs received a tip that hackers known for ransomware attacked gained access to Florence’s IT system. Krebs made numerous attempts to contact city officials before finally receiving a voicemail thanking him for the tip and telling him that the city took care of the issue. However, on June 5th the city announced that a ransomware attack shut down the city’s email system. The city plans on paying the hackers the nearly $300,000 ransom to restore their system.
So, what went wrong? According to city officials, when the attack hit, the IT department was in the middle of securing approval for funds to investigate and stop the attack. Local governments are often slow to act, to be sure, but officials knew about the hacker 10 days before the attack and they still weren’t prepared. The bottom line is, given the rise in ransomware attacks on public institutions, Florence officials needed to have a detailed plan in place before an attack took place. Instead, they scrambled. And, to add insult to injury, hackers accessed to the city’s systems by stealing the Florence IT manager’s credentials through a phishing attack.
How to Beat the Hackers
So, what should you do if you know you’ve been hacked but haven’t yet been attacked? Here are just a few steps you can take:
1. Have a Plan in Place
One of the main reasons Florence was slow to act is because they waited until after the hack to figure out a game plan. Instead, the city needed to have a detailed incident response plan in place. This involves first identifying what types of attacks you are most vulnerable to. Then, you need to create a detailed step-by-step response for each type of attack, and create a team of employees responsible for carrying out each of the steps. You also need to ensure you have contingency funds readily availble to carry out the plan quickly. Finally, it is important to simulate each type of attack so that the team can practice carrying out their response. Overall, the goal of an incident response plan is to deal with potential attacks as quickly and efficiently as possible.
2. Shut Down and Isolate Infected Systems
In order to keep the hackers from accessing other systems, it is important to shut down and isolate infected systems and any devices connected to it. Remove the system from your network. Disconnect the system’s wireless and bluetooth capabilities. Any devices previously connected to the infected systems should be shut down and removed from the network. Along with keeping the hack from spreading, this also limits the hacker’s ability to encrypt or damage the infected systems.
3. Secure Your Backups
Having updated and secure backups are especially important for ransomware attacks. If a hacker encrypts your data, having a recent backup of that data could save you from having to pay the ransom. There are two important caveats, however. First, it’s important that you regular test your backups to ensure your data isn’t corrupted in the backup or restoration process. Second, keeping the copies of your backups secure and offline is essential. Otherwise, it is possible for hackers to gain access to your backups and encrypt of remove them from your systems.
4. When in Doubt, Rebuild
The hard truth is, the most reliable way to shut down a hack before an attack is to completely remove the infected systems and rebuild them from scratch. Of course, the time, resources, and personnel required to do this makes it a difficult pill to swallow for many organizations. However, it is the only way to guarantee that a hack is removed from your systems.
The Bottom Line
Spotting a hack before the attack can give you the leg up on the hackers. But, as the ransomware attack on Florence, Alabama makes clear, knowing that someone accessed into your systems is not enough. You need to have a game plan ready to go and carry it out as fast as possible. Using your time and resources to prepare for an attack now will give you piece of mind, and potentially reduce the cost of a hack later.
The fear of experiencing a cyberattack is rightfully keeping businesses owners up at night. Not only would a cyber attack give your security team a headache , but could have profound and irreversible financial implications for your businesses. In fact, according to a report by IBM and the Ponemon Institute, the average cost of a data breach in the U.S. is a over $8 million. And with 30% of companies expected to experience a breach within 24 months, it’s no surprise that business are seeking coverage. The problem, however, is that businesses and insurance companies alike are still grappling over exactly what is and is not covered when a cyber event occurs.
Some businesses are learning this the hard way
Recently, a phishing campaign successfully stole the credentials of an employee at a rent-servicing company that allows tenants to pay their rent online. The phishers used the employee’s credentials to take $10 million in rent money that the company owed to landlords. The company had a crime insurance policy that covered losses “resulting directly from the use of any computer to fraudulently cause a transfer,” but soon found out their claim was denied. Among the reasons the insurer gave for denying the claim was that, because the funds stolen were owed to landlords, the company did not technically suffer any first-party losses and there were not covered by the insurance policy.
In another case, the pharmaceutical company Merck found itself victim to a ransomware attack that shut down more than 30,000 of their computers and 7,500 servers. The attack took weeks to resolve and Merck is now claiming $1.3 billion in losses that they believe should be covered by their property policy. The problem, however, is that the attack on Merck was actually a by-product of a malware campaign that the Russian government was waging against Ukraine and happened to spread to companies in other countries. The insurer therefore denied the claim, stating their property coverage excludes any incidents considered an “act of war.”
Silence is Deadly
The Merck example above also illustrates the concept of “silent”, or “non-affirmative” cyber. Basically these are standard insurance lines, like property or crime, in which cyber acts have not been specifically included or excluded. Merck was filing the claims against the property policy because it sustained data loss, system loss and business interruption losses. Silent cyber is difficult for a carrier to respond to (which is why the carrier in this case is looking to the war and terrorism exclusion to deny coverage) and even more challenging to account for. That’s one reason both carriers and businesses are looking to standalone cyber insurance, which provides both the insured and carrier with a lot more clarity as to what is covered. (Although, carriers can deny coverage in situations where the attestations about the quality of security up front do not measure up at claim time.)
Predicting the Unpredictable
It’s commonly said that insurers will do anything to avoid paying out claims, but the issue with cyber insurance coverage goes much deeper. Instead, the problem centers around a number of uncertainties involved in categorizing and quantifying cyber risk that makes comprehensive policy writing a near impossible task. For one, cyber insurance is a new market dealing with a relatively new problem. There are therefore not as many data points for insurers to accurately quantify risk as there are for long-standing forms of insurance.
The real problem, however, is that cyber incidents are extremely difficult to predict and reliably account for. Whereas health and natural disaster policies, for example, are based on scientific modeling that allows for a certain degree of stability in risk factors, it is much harder for insurance companies to predict when, where, and how a cyber attack might happen. Even Warren Buffett told investors that anyone who says they have a firm grasp on cyber risk “is kidding themselves.”
Reading the Fine Print
It’s important to understand that, despite the relatively unpredictable nature of cyber incidents, there are plenty of steps businesses can and should take to understand and mitigate their risk profile. Organizations with robust risk management practices can significantly reduce their vulnerability and a strong security posture goes along way towards minimizing their risks and providing a strong defense when a claim strikes.
Unfortunately, this puts a lot of the responsibility on individual businesses when evaluating their cyber exposures and the insurance coverages which might be available to respond. A good insurance broker who has expertise in cyber is essential. Much like the threat landscape, cyber insurance coverage is constantly evolving, and it is to all parties, from businesses to carriers, to keep up.