security breach

Most businesses don’t realize they are vulnerable…until it’s too late.

David Ellis, SecurityMetrics, GCIH, QSA, PFI, CISSP
By: David Ellis
Businesses and organizations fear that dreaded data breach that could cost them millions, but how long are their systems actually vulnerable to attack?

Research from SecurityMetrics states that, on average, a merchant was vulnerable for 470 days before an attacker was able to compromise the system. After compromising the system, attackers were able to capture sensitive cardholder data for an average of 176 days before the merchant discovered the vulnerability and remediated it. This chronology is known as the window of compromise.

SEE ALSO: Top 5 Security Vulnerabilities Every Business Should Know

security breach Security ignorance to blame

The interesting thing about the window of compromise is the fact that the average business was vulnerable for more than an entire year before a hacker came to investigate. An entire year gives any business more than adequate time to patch vulnerabilities before they are exploited. But . . . it isn’t happening.
Why do merchants continue to remain vulnerable?
Reasons that increase the likelihood of vulnerabilities include: uncompleted vulnerability scans, ignored vulnerability scan results, zero-day vulnerabilities, ineffective patching, no IT support, lack of regular environment testing, etc.

With the exception of zero-day exploits, where the vulnerability wasn’t known until the time that it was openly compromised and no patch, or “fix” was available, most other vulnerabilities that lead to data breaches could have been averted if IT security had been a higher priority.  If merchants don’t conduct tests and analyses of their systems, they’re going to leave themselves open to attacks, where it’s a simple matter of time until they’re discovered.

SEE ALSO: A Hacking Scenario: How Hackers Choose Their Victims

How to find and irradiate vulnerabilities

New vulnerabilities are discovered daily. A vulnerability is a system, environment, software, or website weakness that can be exploited by attackers. According to GFI, an average of 19 vulnerabilities per day were reported in 2014, totaling almost 7,000 vulnerabilities per year.
prevent vulnerabilities

Many vulnerabilities can be found via:
  • Vulnerability scans, which are automated, affordable, high-level tests that identify many known weaknesses in network structures. Not only are vulnerability scans a quarterly PCI DSS requirement, robust vulnerability scans are able to identify more than 50,000 unique external weaknesses. After a scan completes, it is crucial for merchants to fix any located vulnerabilities on a prioritized basis.
Contact us if you’re looking for a scan vendor!

SEE ALSO: 10 Qualities to Look For When Selecting an Approved Scanning Vendor
  • Penetration tests are an extremely aggressive approach to finding and removing vulnerabilities. A penetration test simulates a hacker attempting to get into a business system through the exploitation of vulnerabilities. Actual analysts, often called white-hat or ethical hackers, try to discover vulnerabilities that can be exploited. They use methods similar to those of illicit hackers, including password cracking, buffer overflow attacks, cross-site scripting, and SQL injection. Through these and other efforts, they attempt to gain administrative system access and extract data from a network. After the penetration test is complete, merchants should take the advice from the penetration test report and fix the located vulnerabilities on a prioritized basis.

Recommendation: improve vulnerability management

Creating a vulnerability management plan is crucial to decreasing a merchant’s window of vulnerability. This process will help identify, classify, remediate, and mitigate future instances of vulnerabilities. As a part of your vulnerability management strategy, include regular vulnerability scans, an annual penetration test, and the timely application of system security updates and patches. (PCI DSS compliance requires security updates within 30 days of release.)

Vigilant vulnerability management is the most efficient way for you to proactively reduce the window of compromise, greatly narrowing the opportunity for hackers to successfully attack your systems and steal your valuable data.

Read the Window of Compromise white paper.

David Ellis (GCIH, QSA, PFI, CISSP) is Director of Forensic Investigations at SecurityMetrics with over 25 years of law enforcement and investigative experience. Check out his other blog posts.

data security learning center, SecurityMetrics