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Locking Passwords Away – For Good

The definition of madness is doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting a different result, as the old saying goes. It certainly sums up the current approaches to preventing bulk data theft from organizations’ networks and websites – in particular, the theft of users’ account passwords. The same, familiar methods are repeatedly applied to try and secure sensitive information, yet large-scale breaches keep happening with depressing regularity.

We were barely a week into 2016 when Time Warner was forced to announce a breach of up to 320,000 users’ email account passwords; this followed 2015’s mega-breaches at organizations such as Ashley Madison, the US Government’s Office of Personnel Management, toy maker Vtech and many others.

Despite the scale of these ongoing data losses, and the reputational damage and remediation costs they cause, the methods for enterprise-level protection of bulk passwords and personally identifiable information (PII) have remained fundamentally unchanged over the past 20 years; and it’s evident that these approaches are simply not effective in preventing breaches.

Anatomy of Data Theft: Gone in 60 Seconds

A majority of data thefts are done from an organization’s bulk file storage. This is because once a successful attack is executed, whether via a social engineering exploit to gain administrator credentials, malware installation, or a privilege-escalation attack using known software flaws, the theft itself can be done remarkably quickly. A million username/password pairs may be stolen in just 60 seconds.

To protect sensitive data at the server or storage level, three broad security techniques are generally used:

  • Cryptographic protection, encompassing secure hash functions and the use of symmetric key encryption
  • Operating system privileges
  • Intrusion detection

While each offers a level of security, each also has weak points that can be exploited – that is of course, if they are applied at all.

Limitations of Encryption Solutions

Encryption doesn’t prevent data from being stolen; it simply delays the use of that data for an uncertain amount of time, until the attackers are able to decrypt it. With strong encryption, this may never happen, but it’s a risk – and many organizations still store PII without applying any encryption. Whether the data is encrypted or not, the organization must publicly disclose a data breach, risking brand damage and worse.

Limitations of Operating System Privileges

There are two elements that can lead to vulnerabilities here. Operating system privileges are highly vulnerable to social engineering attacks and human error, and any flaws or bugs in the organization’s operating system or software can allow sophisticated attackers to circumvent the privilege system altogether, potentially using malware agents.

Limitations of Intrusion Detection

An intrusion may be detected before any data is lost, but many systems often only trigger after some data is actually stolen. Intrusion detection is an important tool in a security armory, but it mitigates rather than solves the problem.

A Security House of Straw

So encryption and intrusion detection can reduce the impact of a bulk PII or password theft, and sophisticated intrusion detection might alert the organization before the theft takes place. It’s only operating system privileges, alongside firewalls within the network architecture, that actively prevent attackers from getting to the databases holding the PII.

Here, the key problem is that the PII is stored on database file servers using Industry Standard Architecture (ISA), which is fundamentally vulnerable to malicious attacks. Typical commercial off-the-shelf processors are vulnerable to malware; enterprise software platforms are too big to trust, encompassing literally millions of lines of code; and the permissions-based architecture that underpins any enterprise network is vulnerable to permissions-escalation attacks and social engineering exploits.

While increasingly powerful protective measures have been introduced to try and close vulnerabilities, they are being layered onto existing ISAs. We’ve kept doing the same thing repeatedly, building a security house of straw simply because there’s been no alternative. 

Locking Up Your Data

Where do we go from here? We need to start thinking outside of the ISA box. Bulk storage of usernames, passwords and other PII (credit card numbers, addresses, biometric data) needs to be removed from standard, flawed architecture, and to not rely on encryption for protection. The solution also needs to be immune to both software and operating system vulnerabilities, and to social engineering attacks.

This can be achieved by using a hardware data store that physically encapsulates the PII. By encoding the data into the hardware and applying hashing and shadow file principles, the information (such as passwords) can be input and stored in the appliance, but never read out again or extracted.

Instead, the stored passwords are simply used as a reference to compare against login attempts, and the appliance returns a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer against users’ password input. There should be no interface from which the information can be divulged, and no software or operating system that can be attacked by hacking methods.

After two decades of using variations on the same techniques, the only way to stop the bulk theft of sensitive data from organizations is to go against convention, and take a completely different approach that locks that information away, for good. To continue doing what we are currently doing would be madness.

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