The biggest retail hack in U.S. history wasn’t particularly inventive, nor did it appear destined for success. In the days prior to Thanksgiving 2013, someone installed malware in Target’s (TGT) security and payments system designed to steal every credit card used at the company’s 1,797 U.S. stores. At the critical moment—when the Christmas gifts had been scanned and bagged and the cashier asked for a swipe—the malware would step in, capture the shopper’s credit card number, and store it on a Target server commandeered by the hackers.
Behind this week’s coverIt’s a measure of how common these crimes have become, and how conventional the hackers’ approach in this case, that Target was prepared for such an attack. Six months earlier the company began installing a $1.6 million malware detection tool made by the computer security firm FireEye (FEYE), whose customers also include the CIA and the Pentagon. Target had a team of security specialists in Bangalore to monitor its computers around the clock. If Bangalore noticed anything suspicious, Target’s security operations center in Minneapolis would be notified.
On Saturday, Nov. 30, the hackers had set their traps and had just one thing to do before starting the attack: plan the data’s escape route. As they uploaded exfiltration malware to move stolen credit card numbers—first to staging points spread around the U.S. to cover their tracks, then into their computers in Russia—FireEye spotted them. Bangalore got an alert and flagged the security team in Minneapolis. And then …
For some reason, Minneapolis didn’t react to the sirens. Bloomberg Businessweekspoke to more than 10 former Target employees familiar with the company’s data security operation, as well as eight people with specific knowledge of the hack and its aftermath, including former employees, security researchers, and law enforcement officials. The story they tell is of an alert system, installed to protect the bond between retailer and customer, that worked beautifully. But then, Target stood by as 40 million credit card numbers—and 70 million addresses, phone numbers, and other pieces of personal information—gushed out of its mainframes.
When asked to respond to a list of specific questions about the incident and the company’s lack of an immediate response to it, Target Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer Gregg Steinhafel issued an e-mailed statement: “Target was certified as meeting the standard for the payment card industry (PCI) in September 2013. Nonetheless, we suffered a data breach. As a result, we are conducting an end-to-end review of our people, processes and technology to understand our opportunities to improve data security and are committed to learning from this experience. While we are still in the midst of an ongoing investigation, we have already taken significant steps, including beginning the overhaul of our information security structure and the acceleration of our transition to chip-enabled cards. However, as the investigation is not complete, we don’t believe it’s constructive to engage in speculation without the benefit of the final analysis.”
More than 90 lawsuits have been filed against Target by customers and banks for negligence and compensatory damages. That’s on top of other costs, which analysts estimate could run into the billions. Target spent $61 million through Feb. 1 responding to the breach, according to its fourth-quarter report to investors. It set up a customer response operation, and in an effort to regain lost trust, Steinhafel promised that consumers won’t have to pay any fraudulent charges stemming from the breach. Target’s profit for the holiday shopping period fell 46 percent from the same quarter the year before; the number of transactions suffered its biggest decline since the retailer began reporting the statistic in 2008.
In testimony before Congress, Target has said that it was only after the U.S. Department of Justice notified the retailer about the breach in mid-December that company investigators went back to figure out what happened. What it hasn’t publicly revealed: Poring over computer logs, Target found FireEye’s alerts from Nov. 30 and more from Dec. 2, when hackers installed yet another version of the malware. Not only should those alarms have been impossible to miss, they went off early enough that the hackers hadn’t begun transmitting the stolen card data out of Target’s network. Had the company’s security team responded when it was supposed to, the theft that has since engulfed Target, touched as many as one in three American consumers, and led to an international manhunt for the hackers never would have happened at all.
The heart of Target’s antihacking operation is cloistered in a corner room on the sixth floor of a building in downtown Minneapolis. There are no internal-facing windows, just a locked door. Visitors ring a bell, then wait for a visual scan before being buzzed in.
If you’ve seen one security operations center, or SOC, you’ve essentially seen them all. Inside, analysts sit in front of rows of screens that monitor Target’s billion-dollar IT infrastructure. Government agencies often build their own SOCs, as do big banks, defense contractors, tech companies, wireless carriers, and other corporations with centralized stockpiles of high-value information. Retailers, however, tend not to. Most still focus on their primary mission, selling stuff—in part because their sprawling networks of stores and e-tailing entry points are difficult to lock down against incursions. A three-year study by Verizon Enterprise Solutions found that companies discover breaches through their own monitoring in only 31 percent of cases. For retailers, it’s 5 percent. They’re the wildebeests of the digital savannah.
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