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Top 10 Things We Can Learn from the Target Breach


For those of you not familiar with the SANS institute http://www.sans.org, the SANS Institute was established in 1989 as a cooperative IT security research and education organization that today reaches more than 165,000 security professionals around the world.  It is a tremendous resource for everything related to IT security, and I highly encourage any organization or individual serious about IT security to visit the website and examine all that SANS has to offer.

I am giving well deserved props to SANS because my article today is going to discuss a case study authored by Tedi Radichel from radicalsoftware.com and accepted by SANS regarding the 2013 breach of Target retail stores.  To review the full case study, please visit the following URL:


Much of the information in my article is based on this case study, so my goal is to provide a more summarized version of the key elements of the breach, and what we should all learn about critical controls that might have prevented this type of cyberattack.


Lesson #1Be very careful what you publish online about your infrastructure

It appears that attackers may have used a Google search that could have revealed a great deal of information about how Target interacts with vendors, the URL for the Target vendor portal, a list of HVAC and refrigeration vendor companies, and a detailed case study on the Microsoft web site that included details of key components of Target’s technical infrastructure, including POS system information.

Recommendation:  Details regarding IT infrastructure should be considered highly confidential and treated accordingly.


Lesson #2: You cannot control the security of your vendors

An email containing password stealing malware was sent to a refrigeration vendor which yielded usable credentials to the online vendor portal.

Recommendation: Assume that any one of your vendors can get penetrated.  Setup your vendor access and monitoring accordingly.

Recommendation: Require dual factor authentication (2FA) for access to any publically facing system.  Had 2FA been implemented for access to the vendor portal, the entire breach might have been prevented. 2FA and other identity security can be easily achieved on almost any system using the right Single Sign On (SSO) package.


Lesson #3: Spear phishing works.

Recommendation: Contract with a vendor that will run ongoing spear campaigns against your employees that provides feedback and training.  Require your vendors to do the same.


Lesson #4: Publically facing systems should be highly restricted when initiating two-way communications to an internal system

Internet facing systems often require some level of communications back to other internal systems.  These can include SQL queries, A/D or radius authentication, etc.  These connections should be very carefully examined and restricted to the maximum extent possible to eliminate pivot points.

Recommendation: Every public facing system should be examined by penetration testing from an administrative account on the external facing system to see where it can lead.


Lesson #5: Systems that provide authentication services are an obvious attack point

A vulnerable domain controller can be used in a variety of ways to access other systems, domains, etc.  When acting as a Radius or LDAP server, any unsecured authentication packets can be easily captured from any network connection.

Recommendation: Run recurring penetration testing to confirm that unsecured authentication traffic is not traversing the network, and that your authentication servers are not vulnerable.


Lesson #6: If you think Anti-Malware and Anti-Virus software will save you, think again

The malware that was used on the POS systems was custom software, undetectable by virus or malware scanners.

Recommendation: The trick here is detecting that a change was made.  For certain highly sensitive systems, monitoring and alerting should be configured to generate critical alerts based on ANY modification of the system, change of file permissions, etc.


Lesson #7: Default usernames and passwords are risky

Reports indicate data was retrieved using the default username and password for a server performance management platform.

Recommendation: Start using service templates for all change management.  This includes the installation of new hardware, software, platforms, etc.  That template should include changing or disabling all default usernames and passwords, a requirement for PCI and most compliance standards.


Lesson #8: Monitoring systems that no one pays attention to are useless

While the attack was in progress, monitoring software alerted a vendor that notified Target staff of the incident.  No action was taken by Target.

Recommendation: The team that is responsible for reviewing every security incident should include a staff member who is seriously paranoid and not part of the IT group.


Lesson #9: Don’t try to limit the scope of a PCI audit to save money

Because PCI compliance auditing can be expensive, most organizations try to exclude as many systems as possible from PCI scope to reduce the cost of the audit.  Worse than that, PCI compliance is not a risk mitigation strategy.

Recommendation:Organizations should institute risk management activities on a recurring basis, and they should include the entire organization, including staff and infrastructure that would normally not be considered in scope for PCI compliance.


Lesson #10: No matter how good you systems are, if IT is understaffed and undertrained, you are at serious risk

Too many organizations still look at IT strictly as a cost center where executives and staff are rewarded for reducing budgets and “saving” money.

Recommendation: IT and security budgets should not be considered fixed costs, but variable costs tied to the revenue and / or size of the organization.  IT budgets should AUTOMATICALLY grow alongside the organization.

There is a lot of additional security information in the case study, and if you have the time and interest, I highly recommend reviewing it in its entirety.  If you don’t, make sure your IT security people do.  Learning from our collective mistakes is the most powerful IT security product that will ever be available, and it’s generally free.


Curious as to how your current IT solution stacks up against a potential breach? Check out our free IT Assessment to get a handle on your company's security today.

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