4 Security Lessons From the World Bank Breach

The World Bank is making headlines after a disputed report claims hackers managed to access their secure network for over a year. One security pro offers takeaways that everyone can learn from the breach

According to a report from Fox News, several servers at the World Bank Group, an organization that offers economic assistance to developing countries around the globe, were repeatedly compromised and breached over the course of the last year.

Details are still emerging and it is unclear how much sensitive information, if any, was stolen. But the Fox report, which cites internal memos, claims the organization's computer network suffered six major intrusions, which included access to the bank's network for nearly a month in June and July, 2008.

Officials with the World Bank this week claim the Fox report is full of errors, and are criticizing Fox for using unnamed sources in the story.

CSO spoke with Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant with IT security and control firm Sophos, for a look at some of the allegations that are swirling. Cluley said regardless of the facts, what's being discussed can offer some valuable lessons that security pros can use before a breach hits home.

Cyber thieves are everywhere and no where is safe.

Some of the intrusions in question appear to have originated with the same cluster of IP addresses in China.

"This doesn't mean the attackers were in China," said Cluley. "If you are going to hack into an organization like the World Bank, you don't use your own computer."

Instead, it is likely that the criminals involved with the attack commandeered other computers to hijack the World Bank servers.

The bottom line is that computers everywhere are at risk. No matter where you are located, your security plan needs to be bullet proof.

In a breach like this, the motivation could be financial or political.

While many of the breaches we are seeing these days are often done for financial gain, Cluley thinks an organization like the World Bank could very well have been targeted for political reasons as much as for money. Or it could be part of an elaborate plot to gain notoriety.

"They might want to embarrass the World Bank for some reason. It could even be college kids not doing it for money, but for kicks," said Cluley. "We do sometimes see world-known organizations hacked simply because they are there and have left too many holes in their security. It becomes irresistible for hackers to resist."

Consider your organization's name and reputation. Would you be an attractive target for reasons beyond financial gain?

Even the big guys may be behind the times when it comes to security.

According to one of the memos cited by the Fox report, the organization decided to introduce secure ID for users to access their web email after the breach occurred.

"I'm really surprised they didn't have that kind of protection in place already," said Cluley. "There are many big businesses today, like banks, that require customers or employees to use an authentication key, or a token on a key ring, to access their accounts or systems. That's in addition to a username and password. It's a second level authentication that is fairly rudimentary to have in place if you're a large organization."

In another one of the incidents, the World Bank's treasury network was compromised. Bank investigators found spy software had been secretly installed on workstations inside the bank's Washington headquarters. The report claims one or more contractors from Satyam Computer Services, a large Indian-based IT company, is alleged to be responsible for the installation.

"But even if spyware has been installed and a username and password is stolen, that extra layer of security with a token would prevent further intrusion," noted Cluley.

The lesson here: Even if you are a massive business with a big budget, a reality check may be in order on your security protocol and policies.

We are still just at the beginning of security failures that lead to major breaches.

Cluley said he predicts there will be many more organizations on the road ahead that are going to have large-scale breaches before we reach a tipping point.

"The problem is, no matter how much technology you put in place there is always this human element," he said. "Humans can't be upgraded with new patches. But it's humans who are making mistakes and bad decisions which will often introduce security problems into organizations."

The key here, said Cluley, is not just technology, but raising education and awareness among staff.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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