Book review: You’ll see this message when it is too late

A new book from Professor Josephine Wolff at Rochester Inst. of Technology called You’ll see this message when it is too late is worth reading.  While there are plenty of other infosec books on the market, to my knowledge this is first systematic analysis of different data breaches over the past decade.

She reviews a total of nine major data breaches of the recent past and classifies them into three different categories, based on the hackers’ motivations; those that happened for financial gain (TJ Maxx and the South Carolina Department of Revenue and various ransomware attacks); for cyberespionage (DigiNotar and US OPM) and online humiliation (Sony and Ashley Madison). She takes us behind the scenes of how the breaches were discovered, what mistakes were made and what could have been done to mitigate the situation.

A lot has been already written on these breaches, but what sets Wolff’s book apart is that she isn’t trying to assign blame but dive into their root causes and link together various IT and corporate policy failures that led to the actual breach.

There is also a lot of discussion about how management is often wrong about these root causes or the path towards mitigation after the breach is discovered. For example, then-South Carolina governor Nikki Haley insisted that if only the IRS had told them to encrypt their stolen tax data, they would have been safe. Wolff then describes what the FBI had to do to fight the Zeus botnet, where its authors registered thousands of domain names in advance of each campaign, generating new ones for each attack. The FBI ended up working with security researchers to figure out the botnet’s algorithms and be able to shut down the domains before they could be used by the attackers. This was back in 2012, when such partnerships between government and private enterprise were rare. This collaboration also happened in 2014 when Sony was hacked.

Another example of management security hubris can be found with the Ashley Madison breach, where its managers touted how secure its data was and how your profiles could be deleted with confidence — both promises were far from the truth as we all later found out.

The significance of some of these attacks weren’t appreciated until much later. For example, the attack on the Dutch registrar DigiNotar’s certificate management eventually led to its bankruptcy. But more importantly, it demonstrated that a small security flaw could have global implications, and undermine overall trust in the Internet and compromise hundreds of thousands of Iranian email accounts. To this day, most Internet users still don’t understand the significance in how these certificates are created and vetted.

Wolff mentions that “finding a way into a computer system to steal data is comparatively easy. Finding a way to monetize that data can be much harder.” Yes, mistakes were made by the breached parties she covers in this book. “But there were also potential defenders who could have stepped in to detect or stop certain stages of these breaches.” This makes the blame game more complex, and shows that we must consider the entire ecosystem and understand where the weak points lie.

Yes, TJ Maxx could have provided stronger encryption for its wireless networks; South Carolina DoR could have used MFA; DigiNotar could have segmented its network more effectively and set up better intrusion prevention policies; Sony could have been tracking exported data from its network; OPM could have encrypted its personnel files; Ashley Madison could have done a better job with protecting its database security and login credentials. But nonetheless, it is still difficult to define who was really responsible for these various breaches. 

For corporate security and IT managers, this book should be required reading.

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