VanBokkelen: 2006: The year of the breach

Network forensics will play a bigger role in the discovery and remediation of data breaches.

The year 2006 may go down in computer security history as the year of the breach. As of Dec. 1, more than 36 million people in the United States might have had their personal information compromised this year by hackers, laptop computer theft or information security blunders. More than 97 million records are potentially at risk of identity theft because of nearly 300 separate breaches, and the year isn’t over.

Those security breaches happened nationwide, and their victims cut across age, race, socioeconomic and geographic lines. However, people affiliated with universities, government agencies and the military are most likely to have their personal information compromised. The inadvertent disclosure of the records of 26.5 million veterans and their families, including more than 2 million active-duty members, was the largest data breach of its kind in history. Large institutions face greater risks. They have larger volumes of data storage to plunder and potentially a greater number of disgruntled insiders, or former insiders, with malicious reasons for trying to gain access to the
data.

Of the 30 largest data breaches so far this year, at least 10 were the result of  unauthorized access a network. In a majority of those cases, investigators could not determine the date the breach occurred or were unwilling to report it publicly.

In many cases, the organizations didn’t know whether the breach involved outsiders or insiders or whether the culprit ignored, merely viewed or stole the personal information. Information technology departments often do not have the proper technology to ascertain the basic facts about a breach, such as when it occurred, its source or the reasons for the breach.

IT departments can remediate those data gaps with increased security budgets, better-trained and more qualified employees, and software that captures and examines the needle of evidence in a haystack of data.

Network forensics and analysis tools gather and analyze data about a security incident. Such tools have allowed organizations to find malicious hackers; determine whether sensitive data was ignored, viewed or compromised; and prevent future attacks.

A network forensics and analysis tool won’t help find a missing laptop. It won’t strengthen the defenses of a weak or improperly configured network or magically clear up intransigence and miscommunication regarding security policy. But good forensics software, properly configured, will allow IT administrators to see precisely what is passing through an organization’s networks. Aided by network forensics tools, network administrators have identified suspicious or anomalous traffic patterns to and from specific sites at certain times of the day or week.

For institutions affected by data breaches in 2006, network analysis tools could have assisted in identifying perpetrators, determining whether data had been stolen, and saving time and money for security upgrades — not to mention saving organizational face.

VanBokkelen is president of Sandstorm Enterprises, a network security company.

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