It has been confirmed that poor patch management policies opened the door for hackers and allowed them to gain access to the consumer data stored by the credit monitoring bureau Equifax. The massive Equifax data breach announced earlier this month saw the personal information – including Social Security numbers – of almost half the population of the United States exposed/stolen by hackers.
Poor Patch Management Policies to Blame for Yet Another Major Cyberattack
The vulnerability may have been different to that exploited in the WannaCry ransomware attacks in May, but it was a similar scenario. In the case of WannaCry, a Microsoft Server Message Block vulnerability was exploited, allowing hackers to install WannaCry ransomware.
The vulnerability, tracked as CVE-2017-010, was corrected in March 2017 and a patch was issued to prevent the flaw from being exploited. Two months later, the WannaCry ransomware attacks affected organizations around the world that had not yet applied the patch.
Few details about the Equifax data breach were initially released, with the firm only announcing that access to consumer data was gained via a website application vulnerability. Equifax has now confirmed that access to data was gained by exploiting a vulnerability in Apache Struts, specifically, the Apache Struts vulnerability tracked as CVE-2017-5638.
As with WannaCry, a patch had been released two months before the attack took place. Hackers took advantage of poor patch management policies and exploited the vulnerability to gain access to consumer information.
The Exploited Apache Struts Vulnerability
Apache Struts is used by many Fortune 100 firms and is popular with banks, airlines, governments, and e-commerce stores. Apache Struts is an open-source, MVC framework that allows organizations to create front and back-end Java web applications, such as applications on the public website of Equifax.
The CVE-2017-5638 Apache Struts vulnerability is well known. Details of the vulnerability were published in March 2017 and a patch was issued to correct the flaw. The flaw is relatively easy to exploit, and within three days of the patch being issued, hackers started to exploit the vulnerability and attack web applications that had not been patched.
The remote code execution vulnerability allows an attacker to execute arbitrary code in the context of the affected application. While many organizations acted quickly, for some, applying the patch was not straightforward. The process of upgrading and fixing the flaw can be a difficult and labor-intensive task. Some websites have hundreds of apps that all need to be updated and tested. While it is currently unclear if Equifax was in the process of upgrading the software, two months after the patch had been released, Equifax had still not updated its software. In mid-May, the flaw was exploited by hackers and access was gained to consumer data.
Poor Patch Management Policies Will Lead to Data Breaches
All software contains vulnerabilities that can be exploited. It is just a case of those vulnerabilities being found. Already this year, there have been several vulnerabilities discovered in Apache Struts of varying severity. As soon as new vulnerabilities are discovered, patches are developed to correct the flaws. It is up to organizations to ensure patches are applied promptly to keep their systems and data secure. Had the patch been applied promptly, the breach could have been prevented.
Even though a widely exploited vulnerability was known to exist, Equifax was not only slow to correct the flaw but also failed to detect that a breach had occurred for several weeks. In this case, it would appear that the attackers were throttling down on data exfiltration to avoid detection, although questions will certainly be asked about why it took so long for the Equifax cyberattack to be discovered.
Since zero-day vulnerabilities are often exploited before software developers become aware of flaws and develop patches, organizations – especially those of the size of Equifax – should be using intrusion detection solutions to monitor for abnormal application activity. This will help to ensure any zero-day exploits are rapidly identified and action is taken to limit the severity of any breach.
What Will the Cost of the Equifax Data Breach Be?
The cost of the Equifax data breach will be considerable. State attorneys general are lining up to take action against the credit monitoring bureau for failing prevent the breach. 40 attorneys general have already launched and Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey has announced the state will be suing Equifax for breaching state laws.
Healey said, the Equifax data breach was “the most egregious data breach we have ever seen. It is as bad as it gets.” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has also spoken out about the breach promising an in-depth investigation to determine whether state laws have been violated. If they have, action will certainly be taken.
U.S. consumers are also extremely angry that their highly sensitive information has been breached, especially since they did not provide their data to Equifax directly. Class-action lawsuits are certain to be launched to recover damages.
As if the breach itself is not bad enough, questions have been raised about the possibility of insider trading. Three Equifax executives allegedly sold $2 million in stock just days after the breach was discovered and before it had been made public.
The final cost of the Equifax data breach will not be known for years to come, although already the firm has lost 35% of its stock value – wiping out around $6 billion. Multiple lawsuits will be filed, there are likely to be heavy fines. The cost of the Equifax breach is therefore certain to be of the order of hundreds of millions. Some experts have suggested a figure of at least 300 million is likely, and possibly considerably more.