Lessons Learned from the Epsilon Data Breach

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Unless you are a statistical anomaly, you should have received a handful of notifications by now from companies like Chase Bank, or Best Buy warning you that your email address may have been compromised in the attack on Epsilon. As the dust begins to settle, I think we should take an opportunity to review what we know and see what lessons can be learned from the Epsilon data breach.

The news of the Epsilon data breach and the subsequent fallout and predicted spike in spear phishing attacks is getting a little stale at this point. I think anyone who cares understands by now that some company called Epsilon was breached and that their email address was compromised as a result. Let's examine what Epsilon did right, and what Epsilon did wrong, though, so we can perhaps avoid future breaches of this magnitude, and improve on network security and incident response processes.

Epsilon did some things right, and got some things wrong, in the recent data breach incident.
To begin, let's look at what Epsilon did right. First of all, it detected that there was a breach. You have to award some bonus points for that one. According to a story from ITNews Australia, Epsilon had actually been warned late last year by ReturnPath--a company that provides monitoring and authentication services for companies like Epsilon--that there was an increase in phishing attacks and hacking attempts against email distributors.

Epsilon heeded that warning and installed additional protection designed to monitor traffic and alert Epsilon admins in the event any unusual activity or download patterns were detected. It was apparently this new system that let Epsilon discover the breach quickly, and contain the impact to only two percent of the Epsilon customer base.

Joris Evers, Director of Worldwide Public Relations at McAfee, commends Epsilon for recognizing and responding to the threat. "Return Path at least was right that cyber-attackers had email service providers in the cross hairs. In today's world organizations should always be at high alert for cyber-attacks, particularly when handling consumer information and even more so after a warning has been issued."

Lesson learned: pay attention to credible warning signs, and proactively implement the necessary security controls and defenses to reduce risk, and increase the probability that an attack will be discovered, and the damage minimized.

Now, let's look at what went wrong with the Epsilon data breach. The details of exactly how Epsilon was breached are still murky, but it seems concerning that multiple Epsilon customers were compromised from a seemingly single attack.

Anup Ghosh, Founder and Chief Scientist for Invincea, commented, "As we learn more about this breach, it could be very possible that a single intrusion was utilized to gain access to the data across all of these brands. Is this indicative of a potentially broader threat from a cloud perspective? Maybe yes, maybe no - only time will tell as we learn more and pull back more layers of both onions."

Tim 'TK' Keanini, CTO of nCircle, agrees. "It's hard to say exactly what Epsilon did wrong but from the magnitude of the data that was taken, it would appear that they could have segmented the data such that if there was loss, it would only be partial. It appears that everything was centralized and when the attackers got at the data, they got it all."

Lesson Learned: Make sure that customer data--particularly sensitive customer data such as email databases, or other private data--are securely segregated from one another. As organizations move processing and data storage to third-party cloud providers, it is critical that the sensitive data be maintained in separate silos so a breach of one customer database is not a breach of all customer databases.

There is a bonus lesson for the companies like Chase, Best Buy, and others that do business with Epsilon and had customer data compromised as a result. Keanini cautions organizations to always assume that any data shared with a third-party will be stolen. Starting from the premise that it's only a matter of time until the data is compromised, organizations are in a better position to weigh the pros and cons of engaging with that third-party, and assessing the associated risk.

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