Takeaways From the Shopify Hack

On September 22nd, Canadian-based e-commerce company, Shopify, disclosed a security incident involving the breach of data belonging to almost 200 merchants (and their customers). According to the company’s investigation, two rogue members of their support team were engaged in a scheme to obtain customer transactional records of selected merchants. Shopify acknowledged that the hacked online stores may have exposed customer data, including emails, names, addresses, and order details. Shopify claims payment card numbers or other sensitive personal/financial information were not part of the incident. However, the investigation into the breach is still in its early phases and the full extent of exposed data therefore is not yet determined. 

The Shopify hack is an unfortunate illustration of how cyber-attacks are conducted today. Rather than a hooded figure in the darkness penetrating a network, two of Shopify’s own employees went rogue. With an enemy lurking within, the question becomes what measures can organizations take to minimize their exposure to insider threats?

Frequency and Costs of Insider Attacks on the Rise

Over the last two years, insider-related incidents increased by 47% according to the 2020 Cost of Insider Threats Global Report by the Ponemon Institute. At the same time, the average global cost of insider threats rose by 31% to $11.45 million. These numbers are quite concerning, especially when bearing in mind that they came at a time of global prosperity and growth. Today’s economic climate exacerbates these risks, as pending furloughs or pay cuts may tempt employees to exfiltrate data to secure a new job, make up for income losses, etc. That’s why most high-profile hacks this year were conducted for financial gain, rather than carried out by nation states or hacktivists.

An insider threat can be a case of unwitting error, a disgruntled employee, someone within the organization looking to push the boundaries or make a quick buck, or a business partner who compromises security through negligence, misuse, or malicious access. However, a common denominator of these attacks is they typically occur under the umbrella of legitimacy. According to the 2020 Insider Threat Report by Cybersecurity Insiders, the biggest enabler of insider attacks is the fact that in 61% of incidents the perpetrator had elevated access privileges to sensitive data and applications. 

Lessons Learned

So, what measures can organizations take to minimize their exposure? The answer lies in limiting access and privilege. Many organizations grant too much privilege to their staff, contractors, and partners. Traditional perimeter security will not protect against over privileged insiders that want to access critical data. Businesses need to adjust their security strategies to match modern threats, moving away from sloppy password practices and unsecured privileged access, and instead shift their focus to enforcing administrative access controls based on a least privilege approach.  

Organizations should consider implementing the following steps to address insider threats: 

• Enforce segregation of duties: Separate duties, especially for sensitive or shared processes and tasks. This ensures that no individual can complete a single task alone.  For example, in this context, organizations can implement so-called “access zones” to tie the rights a user has to specific resources.

• Establish least privilege: Assign privileged users just enough and just-in-time access to resources they require to do the job. Leave zero standing privileges to be exploited.

• Implement access request and approval workflows: Govern privilege elevation with self-service access requests and multi-level approvals, to capture who approved access and the context associated with the request.

• Leverage user and entity behavior analytics based on machine-learning technology to monitor privileged user behaviors. This will help identify abnormal and high-risk activity, which can be used to trigger real-time alerts or removal of privileges to stop threat actors, whether they are internal or external to the organization. 

The risk of company employees walking away with sensitive data or selling their access credentials has never been greater now that a record number of individuals have been laid off and face financial hardship due to the COVID-19 health crisis. In response, organizations should implement the recommendations listed above to improve their cyber hygiene. These best practices can go a long way toward keeping insider attacks at bay. 

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Torsten George is currently a cyber security evangelist at Centrify, which helps organizations secure privileged access across hybrid and multi-cloud environments. He also serves as strategic advisory board member at vulnerability risk management software vendor, NopSec. He is an internationally recognized IT security expert, author, and speaker. Torsten has been part of the global IT security community for more than 25 years and regularly provides commentary and publishes articles on data breaches, insider threats, compliance frameworks, and IT security best practices. He is also the co-author of the Zero Trust Privilege For Dummies book. Torsten has held executive level positions with RiskSense, RiskVision (acquired by Resolver, Inc.), ActivIdentity (acquired by HID® Global, an ASSA ABLOY™ Group brand), Digital Link, and Everdream Corporation (acquired by Dell).

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