With the recent unveiling of the intense Internet surveillance operation being carried out by the NSA, more people than ever are interested in keeping up to date on the latest laws, news, software, and other information related to maintaining privacy online. There is an immense number of blogs related to information security in all of its incarnations, so we have picked through the offerings to find you the best blogs that deal specifically with personal privacy law and technologies. These are listed mostly without any indication of which is better than any other and are instead separated into categories based on their focus. The focus of the blogs includes hacking methods, ways to protect yourself from identity theft, news on information security topics, and discussion about censorship and identity law.
Most of these companies function in the Information Security world in some form or fashion. They usually maintain fairly decent blogs as a way to generate site traffic, keep their users informed, and to increase their appearance as “leaders” in the field. You do have to watch out for product placement in some of them, but they are self-motivated to provide good and reliable information that keeps people coming back.
Forensic technology encompasses a wide range of fields and technologies and is often used, with some controversy, in criminal trials. The blogs below examine forensic tech from all angles, from professionals active in the field, to journalists covering the impact and evolution of forensic technology, to skeptics concerned about the ramifications of junk science being labeled as forensic science being used to convict in trials.
The Internet provides endless convenience. You can find pretty much anything you could need with just a few clicks of a button. Whether it is a pair of shoes, groceries, furniture, a personal assistant, a copy of episode 67 of the 1980s hit show Three’s Company, a job, a nanny, a date — you name it, it’s all there. It’s so simple to find what you need that many people go to the Internet before going anywhere else. And where do they do their research before making a big purchase or hiring decision? The Internet.
According to a December 2012 Pew study, 81% of American adults use the Internet, and of those in 2010 and 2011:
Prior to the World Wide Web, when someone needed a product or service, they likely turned to friends, family, and colleagues for referrals. This way, there was a direct human connection to that person, increasing trustworthiness. But today, none of us really know who’s on the other side of that computer screen. It’s easier to lie when you’re not looking someone in the face. It’s even easier for a criminal to lie.
There’s a ton of horror stories out there about hiring nannies and employees, answering to Craigslist ads, and online dating. Although it’s frightening, when you think about it, these horror stories make up a very small percentage of transactions that occur on the Internet every single day. We don’t ask that you quit taking advantage of the convenience offered by today’s technology, we just ask that you’re careful and consider doing a little research about a persona or seller before risking your life, and wallet.
8 Potentially Life-Threatening Situations in Everyday Life – An infographic by the team at BackgroundChecks.org
8 Potentially Life-Threatening Situations in Everyday Life – An infographic by the team at BackgroundChecks.org
The information technology age has brought with it a new opportunity for the criminally minded. Unfortunately, our government agencies and corporations have not always been as guarded as they could be against those determined to gain access to the vital data they store. Through a combination of hacking and social engineering techniques, digital thieves have made off with identity information, hampered affairs of state, and even stolen millions of dollars. Here are 20 of some of the most damaging, notorious, or notable data breaches presented in chronological order.
Card Systems is a third-party processor of credit card information based in Tuscon, AZ. In June of 2010, a hacker slipped a data-mining bug into their system through security holes and stole data over time from roughly 40 million cards. This data breach happened in large part because the company was storing cardholder’s account numbers and their security codes, in direct violation of MasterCard rules, which allowed the hacker to collect it. The information gathered was suitable only to steal money from the credit holder’s accounts, not to steal identities. At the time, it was the largest data breach to date.
In 2006, burglars broke into the home of a VA employee who had taken his company laptop home, in violation of that agency’s regulations. Fortunately, the thieves responsible for stealing the laptop in question had no idea what they had gotten their hands on and deleted all the relevant information. When FBI agents recovered the laptop, they found it had been cleared and reformatted for quick resale, thus protecting the millions of veterans whose information had been stored. The data in question included Social Security numbers, names, addresses, and birthdays for millions of veterans, current service members, reservists, and their spouses. It did represent the largest data breach from a government agency in US history, and raised a lot of questions about how we enforce and protect the highly sensitive data government employees have access to.
TJX Companies is a large retailer that includes a number of retail chains like HomeGoods, Marshalls, T.J. Max, and others. Over the course of several years, predominantly in 2003 and 2006, an unknown number of hackers made stole millions of transaction data. Of note, it took TJX over two months after the data breach was discovered to talk about the true size and scope of what occurred with the media, and even delayed discussing their awareness of it with affected banks and customers. In the end, 45.6 million card numbers were stolen and data from over 450,000 merchandise return receipts were also taken. This represented another major wake-up call for the industry. It took TJX seven months after the theft to recognize it, and retracing the hacker’s steps proved challenging since they lost much of the trail in normal data purges.
Once again, a company with a major data leak chooses to withhold this information to its customers for half a year before disclosing it. In this case, AmeriTrade was made aware at least as early as October of 2006 when customers began to complain of stock-related spam emails. That led to a lawsuit in May of 2007 when two of its customers actually sued the company for the breach. Each client had an email addressed used exclusively with TD AmeriTrade and when those inboxes began to fill up with unwanted ads, they immediately knew where the leak had come. The problem was even noted on BoingBoing in June of that same year, when they featured a review of AmeriTrade which noted similar email spam to their dedicated address. Despite this, the company kept the information close to the chest until September when a court order would have forced them to step forward anyway. The lawsuit suggested that the data breach could have potentially leaked sensitive customer data like Social Security numbers and other information that could be used in identity theft. There was also a concern that the company might attempt to destroy information that would display their negligence. The company then requested a two week break from court proceedings, was granted it, and used that time frame to ‘discover’ the breach and notify the press and their clients. It became very clear that they choose to respond not out of a sense of responsibility to their clientele, but purely because they’d been caught and could no longer contain the story.
This case was pretty much a cut-and-dry case of more traditional data theft – a disgruntled employee sold information to a data broker. The details that make this case worth examining is how the company presented the scope of the problem initially and how they recovered. They claimed after it happened that only 2.3 million records were stolen and that the public should not be concerned, because these records were all going to ‘legitimate marketing firms.’ A few months later it was revealed through a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that the true number of stolen records was in the range of 8.5 million. Of those records, roughly 5.7 million included checking account records, and 1.5 million included credit card records that could be used for identity theft and fraud. In the end through a settlement with the Florida Attorney General, consumers were granted a two year period to report and receive reimbursement for expenses related to theft from the incident, and they were given credit monitoring at the company’s expense. Further, the company restructured how it handled information security, doing a comprehensive review of internal and external risk, implementing a range of safeguards, and scheduling regular tests and monitoring programs to detect weaknesses and catch issues before they became problems.
Monster actually had a recurring problem with data breaches between 2007 and 2009. Three separate times they suffered data breaches in which millions of customer’s personal data was stolen or had their job listings infected with malware. Users affected also saw targeted phishing emails encouraging them to download malicious software or tempting them to accept jobs working as mules for online criminal organizations. One of the malicious Trojans left behind by the attacker’s encrypted files on the affected user’s computer and left a text file demanding payment to the attackers to recover the data. Each attack was perpetrated by hackers abusing security weaknesses in their information security structure. Each time, Monster delayed informing its users that there was a breach after becoming aware of it. Each time, Monster swore to do better. Unfortunately, as Monster learned, big talk is not enough to deter hackers. Actual improvements in infrastructure actually have to be accomplished, not just discussed.
Another case of traditional theft leading to a massive data leak, Bank of New York Mellon discovered a missing box of data storage tapes in February and again in April of 2008. Each time, these tapes were being transported by third party vendors from one location to another when they went missing. Surprisingly, these tapes containing vital customer information were not at all encrypted. In addition, the bank did not inform potentially affected customers for three months. Initially, the breach was believed to have affected over 4 million individuals and included names, addresses, and Social Security numbers. Later that year, the bank notified 12 and a half million customers that their data had been stolen. All affected customers were offered two years of free credit monitoring and identity theft insurance worth up to $25,000.
At the time of the attack, CheckFree was the largest e-bill payment system on the internet, controlling between 70-80% of the US online bill pay market. This made it a prime target for smart hackers. For several hours, hackers managed to redirect visitors from the legitimate site login page to a site based in Ukraine that attempted to install software designed to steal customer’s passwords. CheckFree at the time had more than 24 million users, so the attack had the potential to be devastatingly effective. This attack was not due to a problematic infrastructure on CheckFree’s part. The hackers had legitimate codes to access CheckFree’s website, suggesting they either successfully phished that information from a CheckFree employee or utilized password-stealing malware. This same website in Ukraine attacked at least 71 other domains at the same time. The attack was noticed and responded to promptly by CheckFree, who had plugged the leak the same day. They promptly informed their customer base, instructed them how to detect malware infection, and arranged for every affected customer to receive a free copy of VirusScan Plus from McAfee.
In another phishing scam, about 10,000 Hotmail users had their passwords stolen. Much like the CheckFree incident, users were redirected to a site resembling the Windows Live Hotmail login screen. Users who were fooled into entering in their password and user account found their information later posted on Pastebin.com, a site originally designed to allow web developers to easily share tidbits of code. This same site had a list of over 30,000 Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, AOL, Comcast, and Earthlink email accounts and passwords. Microsoft responded quickly upon learning of the breach, sending out emails to warn affected customers of the potential problem and forcing password resets on all affected accounts. As with CheckFree, this was not a failure of Hotmail’s own data security, but a successful phishing venture.
Thought to be the largest data breach of a payment processor, the 2008 attack of Heartland Payment Systems affected roughly 130 million customers and raised a few questions about the effectiveness of PCI standards of the time. The CEO Robert Carr adamantly reported that Heartland was in full compliance with PCI standards and was certified as such. The PCI Security Council contested his claims, suggesting that the breach was a result of an SQL injection error. Even still, the company was certified as fully compliant, leading many to conclude that companies should go beyond the basic requirements of PCI to protect customer data. Particularly with regards to tracking security standards over time, as errors creep into systems and hackers gain more sophisticated tools. Heartland developed an E3 end-to-end encryption service to monitor and secure the whole payment process from point-of-sale all the way through authorization and approval. The PCI Security council also began looking into technologies like card tokenization to improve their own standards. The end result was more focus on a layered approach to information security. In the end, Heartland paid more than $110 million to Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and other card companies to settle claims related to the breach, customers were notified and offered credit monitoring, and companies gained a sobering check about the state of their data security.
Once again, the VA put data from roughly 76 million veterans at risk through employee negligence. In this case, the breach started with a faulty hard drive in a database RAID array. Employees arranged for a contractor to repair the disc and neglected to erase the encrypted data stored on the disc. When the contractor failed to repair it, the disc was recycled, leaving the data accessible to whoever next claimed the disc.
Much like Heartland, Hannaford Bros. supermarket chain appeared to be following PCI compliance standards when they were hit with a massive data breach. Despite their compliance, a sophisticated hacking attack exposed over 4 million credit and debit card numbers to potential identity theft risk, and resulted in almost two thousand cases of fraud. Later that year, Albert “Segvec” Gonzalez was indicted by a federal grand jury in New Jersey, along with two co-conspirators, on charges of hacking into Hannaford Brothers, Heartland Payment Systems, 7-Eleven, T.J. Maxx, and other unnamed national retailers. This individual and his small team were accused of stealing over 130 million credit and debit card numbers, the biggest fraud case of its kind in history. He was eventually sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for his crimes.
The VeriSign attack was notable both for the severity of potential complications such a breach could have caused, and for the astounding lack of communication happening within the company. The data breach was first discovered by their security team in 2010, but this was not reported at all to management until September of 2011. An SEC filing made public the data breach, forcing the company to acknowledge the situation, though initially the upper level management seemed to have little knowledge of the incident beyond what was included in the filing. At the time of the attack, VeriSign was one of the largest providers of SSL certificates, which browsers use to identify secure sites like financial sites and communication portals. VeriSign also housed sensitive information on customers and the registry service used to create website addresses also a potential target. The big fear was that the certificate system was compromised; this would have allowed hackers to forge certificates (an event that had already occurred) and thus trick users into believing a phishing site was completely legitimate. Stewart Baker, former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security responded to the event by saying, “Oh my God. That could allow people to imitate almost any company on the Net.”
Gawker Media’s security breach was a lesson in humility, the internet’s version of being publicly tarred and feathered. A feud between online message board 4Chan and Gawker (who is responsible for Kotaku, Gizmodo, Jezebel, Jalopnik, Lifehacker, Deadspin, Fleshbot, and io9) developed as the web publisher trashed 4chan’s antics. This was swiftly followed by denial-of-service attacks perpetrated by 4chan members. Shortly thereafter, a group with loose affiliation to 4chan who called themselves Gnosis began to infiltrate the Gawker’s content management system, internal communications systems, and user databases. There they sat for a period of time, during which Gawker’s founder was notified that his account was logged into their internal system when he was not. He ordered the account shut off, but did not bother to change his password. In a stunning display of stupidity, it turned out that he used the same password for everything. After playing around internally for a bit, Gnosis began to get public. They posted a snarky message via Gawker’s Twitter account suggesting that user accounts might be compromised. When a Gawker employee assured people that their information was safe, Gnosis responded by posting a meme and a message on Gawker’s site directing people to a Pirate Bay torrent containing a massive data dump that included internal conversations, user names and passwords for a number of employees and many site commenters, FTB account access, and the source code for their content management system (allowing hackers to dig through for weakness). It also revealed that they were three years out of date on their server’s security patches, were using horrendously out of date encryption on user passwords, and had zero protocol established for password creation; nearly 2,000 Gawker users has ‘password’ as their password. Gawker’s response was incredibly poor. Not only did Neck Denton, the founder, fail to respond in a sensible manner after being originally made aware of the problem, they then refused to admit that there was a problem because their passwords were ‘encrypted’ and then waited over a day before notifying users there was a breach. When they did notify customers, it was done with a message on their site, not via email, ensuring many users would never know there was an issue.
ESTsoft is a general purpose software company operating in South Korea. In 2011, they were the target of a devastating attack that impacted nearly the entirety of South Korea’s population. Hackers gained access to one of ESTsoft’s update servers and loaded malware that attached itself to their ALZip compression application, which subsequently infected 62 computers at SK Communications that made use of the ESTsoft program. The infected computers were then able to steal complete customer databases including addresses, contact information, passwords, and gender of roughly 35 million individuals in a nation with a total population of 49 million. The company apologized, the primary web portal for Korea, NHN, ordered employees to delete ESTsoft programs, and lawsuits were filed. The company never disclosed the financial cost of the breach.
In one of the largest data breaches of its kind, Epsilon was hacked in March of 2011. Epsilon handles over 40 billion emails annually and services more than 2,200 clients around the world. The information stored was primarily email addresses and names, including those of customers who had opted-out of marketing mailers, opening up all of those customers to phishing attempts. In addition, some users member points were accessed, giving thieves an upper hand when creating believable scam emails. Included in the many companies that sent out warnings to their clientele were major retailers, financial companies, cellular phone companies, banking institutions, and more. Roughly 3% of Epsilon’s clientele was effected. The Secret Service investigated the breach which is estimated to potentially cost Epsilon up to $225 million in damages.
SecurID tokens, used in a two-factor authentication system which is designed to create a layered and stronger security system, were compromised in March of 2011 when RSA Security was hacked. Initially, RSA claimed that the hack would in no way allow any “direct attack” on the tokens. Then a few months later, the defense contractor Lockheed Martin fended off a hacking attempt in which the tokens failed to offer any layer of protection. In June RSA released a statement acknowledging the failure. Their Chairman, Art Coviello, claimed that the reason it took them 3 months to disclose the full scope of the breach was to protect other customers from attacks similar to what Lockheed Martin experienced. There were claims that Northrop Grumman and L-3 Communications faced similar attacks. The delay caused many to question the reliability of RSA’s system and certainly to worry that withholding that information put their customers at risk. Some choose to switch to a new token provider, but many remained with RSA because the cost of switching was much more expensive and time intensive than simply gaining new tokens (which RSA provided). In a rather ballsy gesture, RSA encouraged its customer base to increase the layers of RSA security to create redundancy layers. One product fails, so we’ll switch that one out and sell you two more.
Some 77 million user accounts on Sony’s PlayStation Network were compromised after a large scale hack accessed the Sony database. It took the company seven days to notify their customers that data was stolen during the breach that caused their massive shutdown. Names, email addresses, passwords, security questions, birth dates, and addresses were accessed, and Sony warned customers that credit and debit card information may also have been stolen, though no cases of identity theft or fraud were reported as a result. The company was fined £250,000 (approximately $400,000 USD) by Information Commissioner’s Office, a UK based watchdog group, naming the clear negligence on Sony’s part as the reason for the fine.
Bitcoin offered the internet world a unique form of new currency. The nature of Bitcoins makes it an irresistible target for hackers, as a key feature is the permanency of the peer-to-peer transaction style. While it protects merchants from chargebacks, it also means that a successful theft of the currency is one that cannot be reversed. Once a hacker gains access to the private keys, what they steal is theirs to keep. Bitcoin has see a lot of growth in recent years as it has become a haven for both criminal activity and as a sort of virtual stock market. It has also seen a rash of hacking attacks targeting trading platforms like Bitcoinia, who lost $87,000 worth of currency in an attack against their production servers and BitFloor, the largest Bitcoin exchange in the US, who lost $250,000 in a successful hack against an unencrypted storage server. Bt Gox, Instawallet, and other Bitcoin-supporting companies have also seen successful thefts. These thefts have considerably increased the risk of investment in Bitcoins, stalling what had been a dramatic growth in value in 2012.
With a pricetag of $92.7 million in damages, investigation costs, lost business, and remediation expenses, the Global Payments data breach put at risk more than 7 million card numbers. The data that was stolen in the breach included full Track 1 and Track 2 data, usable by thieves to counterfeit new cards. Union Savings Bank was just one among a number of financial institutions affected by exactly that tactic. In March of 2012, thieves began purchasing small denomination Safeway-branded prepaid debit cards. They would then encode Union Savings Bank issued debit card accounts to the magnetic strip on these cards, use them to purchase high value prepaid cards, and spend the money buying high ticket electronics and other items from other retailers. USB alone suffered roughly $85,000 in expenses related to the theft. Some, like Fulton Bank of New Jersey were harder hit, seeing roughly one thousand stolen accounts every week. Visa and MasterCard promptly revoked their certification of Global Payments. Javelin estimated that $707 million in fraudulent charges will occur to the 1.5 million cards that were known to be compromised, with an end cost to consumers of roughly $152 million.
The Benefits of Background Checks for Individuals and Businesses
As more people compete for jobs and contracts in an ever increasingly tight market, there is a temptation to embellish credentials or even make false statements on resumes. Surveys conducted by Accu-Screen, Inc., ADP, and The Society of Human Resource Managers in 2012 found the 53 percent of people lied on job applications or on job applications. Even more worrisome is that the same survey found that 70 percent of recent college graduates admitted that they would lie on their resume if it meant that they would get a job [http://www.statisticbrain.com/resume-falsification-statistics/]. While it is short-sighted for the person to lie on their resume because in most cases the falsehood is discovered and they will be fired, this deception can also be costly for a business.
A Falsehood on a Resume Costly for Both an Executive and a Company
In 2002, it was discovered that a CFO of a major software firm had lied about his academic credentials. He claimed that he received his MBA from Stanford and that he received his undergraduate accounting from Arizona State University. As a result, he was forced to resign from the company. Despite his resignation, the credit rating of the company was dropped and the stock of the company dropped by 20 percent. If the company had completed a thorough background check prior to employing this executive, the business and the stockholders would not have incurred this loss [http://www.businessinsider.com/9-people-who-were-publicly-shamed-for-lying-on-their-resumes-2012-5?op=1].
Businesses and Background Checks
Businesses who conduct background checks find that this due diligence provides a significant return on their investment. As in the example, a company can lose a significant amount of good will and consumer trust, which will affect their bottom line. Another example of a company that took a hit to their reputation was Yahoo! when it was discovered that Scott Thompson, their CEO, had lied on his resume about his educational background. Both of these situations could have been avoided if the companies had performed background checks to verify the academic credentials before hiring them.
In addition to verifying information that a job applicant had documented on his or her resume, background checks can also provide an employer with a criminal background check. A recent 2012 industry survey found that businesses in the United States lost $50 billion due to employee theft [.http://www.statisticbrain.com/employee-theft-statistics/]. Moreover, with the growing popularity of online retailing, more companies keep sensitive customer information, such as credit card information, in company databases. If an employee compromises these databases and steals this information, companies not only incur the ire of their existing customers, but also lose potential sales from new customers who do not want to trust the company. Moreover, the company is likely to have to pay for identity theft prevention services and credit monitoring for their customers. The risk of employee theft and security breaches can be significantly decreased by performing a criminal background check.
Businesses can use backgrounds checks to find information about other companies. For example, if they are considering forming a partnership or buying another company, a background check can determine if the company has a history of code infractions, lawsuits, or regulatory violations. Additionally, background checks are useful when performing assets discovery and verifying property values. The results of background checks provide the foundation for making sound and informed business decisions.
Background Checks for Consumers
Individuals are also discovering the benefits of background checks. As more employers start performing background checks for potential hires, it is essential to verify that the information in your background check is correct. Just as consumers sometimes have errors in their credit reports, there can be misinformation in public records. Often these errors occur because of similarities in names, data entry mistakes, or Social Security numbers that are close in sequence. It is much easier to correct these errors before beginning a job search than trying to explain mistaken information to a Human Resource representative, given that the opportunity is even offered.
As more and more families have both parents working, it is common that people hire childcare help or sitters for elderly parents. The media is full of stories of nannies and eldercare workers who have abused or neglected their charges. People can protect their loved ones by performing a background check on potential caretakers. These checks will help determine if the person has had any complaints or criminal charges brought against them. Additionally, a comprehensive check of sex offender registries can be requested as part of the background check.
Consumers can also check the credentials and licensing status of physicians, attorneys, and other professionals. These background checks allow people to verify that a professional has standing to practice in their state as well as any history of sanctions levied by professional boards. This ensures that individuals are receiving competent care and services.
Background Checks for Non-Profits
Many non-profit organizations provide services to the most vulnerable members of society. Children, the elderly, and the disabled are easily exploited by unscrupulous individuals. Additionally, non-profits also have extremely limited funds and have a great deal of difficulty trying to recover from theft. Moreover, donors often look to other organizations to support when a non-profit has problems with abuse, neglect, or exploitation of clients by volunteers, or a history of theft.
A non-profit organization can protect their clients and organization by contracting to have background checks of their volunteers. This will provide them with information about any criminal history, domestic violence or child/elder abuse history, as well as a check of sex offender registry information.
Privacy Concerns and Background Checks
While the majority of information contained in background checks is derived from searches of public records, it is considered best practice to inform the person that their background is going to be checked. The notification should be provided in writing and the individual should sign a document giving permission and waiver of liability in the event unfavorable information is discovered. Often when unscrupulous people find out that they are subject to a background check, they will withdraw their application. Just informing a person that they are undergoing a background check can deter dishonest or unethical people from trying to join your organization or providing services to your family.