TalkTalk – The case for a Chief Security Officer


unnamed-1While the importance of the Chief Information Security Officer has been in constant growth over the past few years, organisations that employ a CISO/CSO are still far too few.

As the latest breach at broadband provider TalkTalk descends slowly into farce, the perils of relying on the CEO to fill these shoes become apparent. Almost one week on from the initial attack many important questions still remain unanswered or answered in unacceptably vague or contradictory terms.

The “significant and sustained” attack against TalkTalk was initially characterised as a Distributed Denial of Service attack. Commentators rightly pointed out that a DDoS in itself does not lead to information theft and that there must have been another element to it. Later reports appear to confirm that the theft was the result of a simple SQL injection attack. At a technology company! Affecting 4m people! In 2015!

TalkTalk are still unable to confirm which and how much data was encrypted. In addition to personal information including name, address, date of birth and email address, the breach also exposed financial data. The CEO initially said that they “didn’t know” if this data was encrypted or not (How can this be the case?). Now, it appears that “only” the first and last digits of credit card data may have been exposed. Of course this still carries risk, think how often those “last four digits” are requested as verification data. Since then Baroness Harding has even gone as far as the last refuge of the wicked, legislation, claiming in an interview with The Sunday Times (paywalled) that TalkTalk is under no obligation to encrypt credit card data. Really? I think that the PCI-DSS may well dispute that point with you, not to mention your customers.

Ah yes, the customers… Those four million people who will now be finding that their names, addresses, contact information and dates of birth are far more difficult to change than their credit card details (or their broadband provider) and that a year of free credit-monitoring involves entrusting yet another corporate with all their extremely sensitive information.

The handling of the breach illustrates that the role of the CISO is never a purely technical one; the CISO also owns the breach response plan, an important aspect of which has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with communications. How do you inform your customers and when? How do you engage law enforcement or forensics? What information do you need always to have to hand about the care and sensitivity with which you treat the information that has been entrusted to your organisation and how do you sensitively, accurately and promptly convey this?

Rule 1: It’s not all about you. To say, “I’m a customer myself of TalkTalk. I’ve been a victim of this attack” is crass and insensitive in the extreme. To include an assertion in your FAQ that you have not breached the Data Protection Act is both short-sighted and ill-informed, as I addressed in this piece for The Guardian.

This apparent lack of plan, this visible lack of any senior Information Security management team could well be the eventual downfall of TalkTalk, time, the markets, the regulators and their customers will decide. We could be watching the first major corporate disintegration as a result of data breach. Welcome to the future.

So, assuming you have or are planning to hire a CISO, to whom should they report? In too many organisations the CISO is still reporting to the CIO despite the frequent pitfalls. This reporting structure can be counter-productive. The question of reporting lines is often a source of friction and can really only be answered if you have managed to effectively differentiate and delineate your CIO and CISO roles.

Job descriptions are slippery amorphous things, so in the interest of impartiality I’ll use Wikipedia’s definition. CIO is “a job title commonly given to the most senior executive in an enterprise responsible for the information technology and computer systems that support enterprise goals”, whereas CISO “is the senior-level executive within an organization responsible for establishing and maintaining the enterprise vision, strategy and program to ensure information assets are adequately protected”.

When put this simply, the conflict of interest in having a CISO report to a CIO becomes very clear. The person responsible for ensuring organisational information security can not be subordinated to the person responsible for technology selection and implementation. Rather the two should operate as a team, driving operational and information security up the boardroom agenda. An effective CIO/CISO team will take board level strategic directions and translate them into technological and process requirements for the organisation. The CIO ensures that best of breed technologies are selected and architected in the most operationally beneficial manner, the CISO ensuring that those technologies meet the security requirements of the business on an ongoing basis; neither one being able to pull rank on the other.

In the case of a conflict arising between the two, which cannot be resolved through discussion the final say must comes down to business risk and operations, requiring the involvement of COO, CRO or even CEO depending on the organisational structure.

Security should be a regular boardroom agenda item and it is only through the checks and balances of the independent CIO and CISO that it can be effectively addressed.

The Security of the Small Business

Image by Charlie, used under Creative Commons

In the United Kingdom, as in many other economies around the world, smaller businesses are the lifeblood of national prosperity. In essence SMEs *are* the private sector, according to the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, they employ more people (60% in the UK in 2014) and generate almost half the total turnover of the private sector (48% in the UK in 2014).

Given the importance of these businesses to the UK economy, Trend Micro decided to attempt to discover just how ready many of these businesses are for the potentially devastating consequences of compromise.

Small businesses represent an attractive target for online criminals for several reasons; of course many of them hold or process a large amount of personal information, identities, legal, financial and medical records just for example. They also have less convoluted financial and banking arrangements, making them easier to exploit with traditional banking malware whilst also being less likely to be compensated for any fraudulent transactions. Quite aside from the dangers of information or financial theft, small and medium businesses are increasingly in the sights of sophisticated criminals looking for ways into larger organisations. In an attack technique that has become known as “island hopping“, determined attackers seek out the smaller business partners of their eventual target in the hope that they will be less security savvy and less well-protected. Fazio Mechanical Services has become the unfortunate poster child of the island hopping attack ever since it was used as a stepping stone to the huge Target data breach in late 2013.

So what did we discover?

We interviewed 500 key decision makers and business owners in UK SMEs to compile the research. Amazingly, only half of them said they rely on internet security tools to protect their organisation from cyber attack. In addition, just 44% said they knew how to check if their laptops, mobiles or tablets had been infected with malware. Three-quarters (74%) admitted to not fully understanding the legal implications of a cyber attack, while 67% said the same was true of the financial implications of an attack.

Tellingly, just 18% said they thought their data was worth stealing.

What now?

It isn’t only the internet security industry that is sounding the alarm and offering assistance to SMEs. The UK government too has recognised the threat. Last month Ed Vaizey, the Digital Economy Minister outlined how the voucher scheme, operated by the government’s Technology Strategy Board,  Innovate UK would be extended to cover cybersecurity. This scheme offers businesses the chance to apply for £5000 in funding for specialist advice to help better secure their businesses and digital assets. Unfortunately right now there isn’t enough in the pot to cover every application, so lucky recipients are selected in a random draw on a quarterly basis, still as they say, you’ve got to be in it to win it…

in the meantime the key to online security lies in the selection of a trusted security partner. As a small business, your core skills are not in cyber security or network or system administration. You are focussed on growing your business, on being succesful and on being the best in your field, and rightly so.

There are other small and medium businesses like yours who are striving to be the best in their field too and their field is security. A specialist partner, providing a managed security service, will be able to provide you with the assurance and peace of mind that you need to focus all your efforts on success and who knows… You may even get the funding!

The research was conducted on behalf of Trend Micro via Vital Statistics – sampled 500 UK business owners and decision makers in August 2015.

Small Business Advice Week runs from 31st August -6th September 2015. More information can be found here:

TV5 Monde, Russia and the CyberCaliphate

Image credit Steven Depolo used under Creative Commons

Image credit Steven Depolo used under Creative Commons

Yesterday evening French magazine L’Express published a report linking an attack against TV5 Monde very firmly to the Russian state. The attack, which knocked 11 of its global channels off air for a period of time and resulted in a compromised website and Facebook page, took place back in April.

At the time when the attack took place, a group calling itself CyberCaliphate immediately took responsibility for the hack and went on to publish details purportedly of serving French military personnel involved in the struggle against Islamic State or ISIS. The attribution at the time seems simple and immediate; Islamic Extremist motivated hacktivism.

L’Express approached Trend Micro with certain indicators of compromise which had been shared with 43 media organisations by the Agence nationale de la sécurité des systèmes d’information (ANSSI) in France, with a view to uncovering more about the attacker or the motivations behind the attack. These indicators very definitely evidence an infestation of Sednit (also known as Sofacy) malware, associated with the ongoing targeted attack campaigns by the Pawn Storm operators (also referred to as APT28). What they did not do was to definitively link the stolen information or compromised accounts from the April attack to this Pawn Storm compromise. Neither is it possible to state with certainty that the two are *not* related.

Attribution in online crime is complex, more so when there may be nation-state involvement. Trend Micro’s assessment of the current possibilities, with reference to the facts as they stand today leaves us with three possibilities.

1 – We could be looking at two entirely unrelated incidents, a Pawn Storm infestation and a separate hactivist compromise
2 – Perhaps the Pawn Storm group gave attack relevant data to a third party, directly or indirectly to islamic hactivists. While possible, this would seem highly unlikely as we have seen Pawn Storm actively targeting Chechen separatists and Islamic extremists in former Yugoslavia
3 – Finally, the Pawn Storm group carried out a highly visible website, Facebook and TV network compromise (which would be extremely out of character) and used it as a false flag operation to lay the blame at the door of islamic extremists.

While the false flag option is not entirely out of the question, it is at least somewhat out of character of previous operations of the Pawn Storm campaign. My spider senses right now are tingling on option one. TV5 Monde, as a media operation is a target entirely within the remit of the regular Pawn Storm operations and an infestation of Sednit malware there should perhaps not be a surprise at all. The fact that during the time of this Sednit compromise, they were also targeted by Islamic extremist hacktivists, given the contemporary news and political environment in France is perhaps also not surprising.

Attribution online is always complex, sometimes though things can be entirely as they seem.