The Sony case – or how to best ignore security best practices

04.05.2011 by Martin Kuppinger

The data theft at Sony has been in the headlines for some days now. What makes me most wonder is that – from what I’ve read and heard first – even the passwords were stored unencrypted. However, Sony claims to have used a hash to protect these passwords. It looks like Sony also has stored the credit card numbers plus the associated security codes (which are, by the way, one of the most ridiculous approaches to enhance security) together and, no surprise, unencrypted. But if Sony has used hash values: Why did everyone assume that these passwords become common knowledge (at least for the hackers and their “customers”)?

But let’s start with passwords: Even while it is still done frequently, it is anything but good practice to store passwords unencrypted. You not even need to store them encrypted. Just store a hash, apply the same mathematical algorithm to passwords entered and compare the hashes. Even while some of the algorithms in that area aren’t “bullet-proof” that is far better than storing millions of passwords unencrypted. Storing passwords unencrypted is such a fundamental error that you just can call that grossly negligent. That is not a simple fault but ignorance against fundamental security requirements – even more, when that information is associated with credit card information and other types of highly sensitive data like bank accounts. If Sony has stored hash values that would be good practice, depending a little on the algorithm used. That reduces the risk for the Sony customers even while there is still some risk of having the hash values being stolen. Passwords might be derived from these for example based on brute-force attacks.

Let’s look at the next point. Sony has become, from what we know, a victim of an external attack. Accessing large numbers of data most likely involves a SQL injection attack. Interestingly, the Sony Playstation website has been hit by such an attack before, some three years ago. Given that something happened before raises the question why Sony didn’t protect information better. Haven’t they heard about database security tools and especially database firewalls? That’s exactly the type of technology which helps you protecting data like (if you have them) hashed or unprotected passwords or credit card data. We recently had several webinars on database security and database governance, the last one yesterday about database firewalls specifically. All the recordings are available.

Overall it looks like this hasn’t been the most sophisticated hack ever. It looks like no internals were involved (which would lead to the topic of PxM, e.g. protection against privileged access/users). It looks like Sony just has ignored not even best or good practices, but in many areas even average practices in security.

The bad thing about this is, that Sony isn’t alone out there when it comes to ignoring good/best practices in security. The most common reason is that they just don’t think about security – either because it is too complex or because of the price to pay for security. Hopefully, the Sony case alerts some of the others to review their security and to improve it. However, there is a saying in German that hope dies at last. And I feel that this is more about hoping than about really expecting web sites to become more secure by design.

By the way: European Identity Conference, to be held next week in Munich, is about information security, IAM, GRC, and database security. A good place to learn more and to meet the analysts of KuppingerCole to discuss Information Security issues in person.


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