INSIGHTS | March 14, 2013

Credit Bureau Data Breaches

This week saw some considerable surprise over how easy it is to acquire personal credit report information.  On Tuesday Bloomberg News led with a story of how “Top Credit Agencies Say Hackers Stole Celebrity Reports”, and yesterday there were many follow-up stories examining the hack. In one story I spoke with Rob Westervelt over at CRN regarding the problems credit reporting agencies face when authenticating the person for which the credit information applies and the additional problems they face securing the data in general (you can read the article “Equifax, Other Credit Bureaus Acknowledge Data Breach”).

Many stories have focused on one of two areas – the celebrities, or the ease of acquiring credit reports – but I wanted to touch upon some of the problems credit monitoring agencies face in verifying who has access to the data and how that fits in to the bigger problem of Internet-based authentication and the prevalence of personal-enough information.
The repeated failure of Internet portals tasked with providing access to personal credit report information stems from the data they have available that can be used for authentication, and the legislated requirement to make the data available in the first place.
Credit monitoring agencies are required to make the data accessible to all the individuals they hold reports on, however access to the credit report information is achieved through a wide variety of free and subscription portals – most of which are not associated with the credit monitoring bureaus in the first place.
In order to provide access to a particular individual’s credit report, the user must answer a few questions about themselves via one such portal. These questions, by necessity, are restricted to the kinds of data held (and tracked) by the credit reporting agencies – based off information garnered from other financial institutions. This information includes name, date of birth (or age), social security number, account numbers, account balances, account addresses, financial institutes that manages the accounts, and past requests for access to credit report information. While it sounds like a lot of information, it’s actually not a very rich source for authentication purposes – especially when some of the most important information that can uniquely identify the individual is relatively easy to acquire through other external and Internet-based sources.
Time Magazine’s article “Hackers Now Aiming For Your Credit Reports” of a year ago describes many of these limitations and where some of this information can be acquired. In essence though, the data is easy to mine from social media sites and household tax records; and a little bruteforce guessing can overcome the hurdle of it not already being in the public domain.
The question then becomes “what can the credit monitoring agencies do to protect the privacy of credit reports?”  Some commentators have recommended that individuals should provide a copy of state-issued identification documents – such as a drivers license or passport.
The submission of such a scanned document poses new problems for the credit monitoring agencies. First of all, this probably isn’t automatable on a large scale and they’ll need trained staff to review each of these documents. Secondly, there are plenty of tools and websites that allow you to generate a fake ID within seconds (e.g. here) – and spotting the fakes will be extremely difficult without tying the authentication process to an external government authentication system (e.g. checking to see if the drivers license or passport number is legitimate). Thirdly, do you want the credit reporting agencies holding even more personal information about you?
This entire problem is getting worse – not just for the credit monitoring agencies, but for all online services. Authentication – especially “first time” authentication – is difficult at the best of times, but if you’re trying to do this using only data an organization has collected and holds themselves, it’s neigh on impossible given current hacking techniques.
I hate to say it, but there’s a very strong (and growing) requirement for governments to play a larger role in identity management. Someone somewhere needs to act as a trusted Internet passport authority – with “trusted” being the critical piece. I’ve seen the arguments that have been made for Facebook, Google, etc. being that identity management platform, but I respectively disagree. These commercial services aren’t identity management platforms, they’re authentication gateways. What is needed is the cyber-equivalent of a government-issued passport, with all the checks and balances that entails.
Even that is not perfect, but it would certainly be better than the crumby vendor-specific authentication systems and password recovery processes that currently plague the Internet.
In the meantime, don’t be surprised if you find your credit report and other personal information splattered over the Internet as part of some juvenile doxing attack.
— Gunter Ollmann, CTO IOActive Inc.