Assume breach position does not mean firms get to skip due diligence in cybersecurity

Another week, another data breach, and this time involving another communications services provider in Singapore. With cybersecurity incidents now seemingly commonplace, more organisations must be realising it’s only a matter of time before they get hit, but they’ll be wrong to assume it’s their advance-to-go card and they get to skip doing their due diligence in safeguarding customer data. 

MyRepublic on Friday said personal data of 79.388 of its mobile subscribers were compromised, following a security breach on a third-party data storage platform. The affected system had contained identity verification documents needed for mobile services registration, including scanned copies of local customers’ national identity cards and residential addresses of foreign residents. 

I asked MyRepublic if the data storage service was cloud-based and whether it was the only client affected by the breach, but it declined to provide specifics citing confidentiality and security reasons. 

It did reveal, however, that it was informed of the breach by “an unknown external party” on August 29, which was the date it said the “unauthorised data access” was uncovered. It since had been plugged and incident “contained”, MyRepublic said. 

The internet services provider is the third here to be hit by a cybersecurity breach in just six months. Just in August, local telco StarHub said a file containing personal data of its customers had been found on a dump site. The file contained mobile numbers, email addresses, and identity card numbers of 57,191 individuals who had subscribed to StarHub’s services before 2007. Apart from broadband and mobile, the telco also offers pay TV services in Singapore. All affected customers were from its consumer business.

Earlier in February, Singtel said personal details of 129,000 customers including name, date of birth, mobile number, and physical address, were compromised in a security breach that involved third-party file-sharing system, FTA. Launched by US cloud service provider Accellion 20 years ago, the FTA product was nearing retirement and had vulnerabilities that were not properly patched, impacting several organisations and their customers including Shell and Morgan Stanley.

In Singtel’s case, financial details of employees of a corporate client also were compromised in the breach. 

In their respective security incident, both MyRepublic and StarHub highlighted that financial details such as credit card and bank account information were not affected. They also noted that none of their own systems were compromised. 

However, that should bring little comfort since third-party and supply chain attacks are on the rise, paving multiple ways for cybercriminals to breach their eventual targets–any organisation with access to large volumes of consumer data. 

Furthermore, there’s little indication that organisations are taking the necessary steps to ensure their entire supply chain is resilient and secured. Are they constantly assessing the security posture of their third-party suppliers? Would MyRepublic have known there was a data breach if the “unknown external party” had not raised the alarm? 

When I asked MyRepublic when it last assessed security measures implemented by the affected data storage vendor, it would not specify a date. It said only that it “regularly” reviewed such measures internally and externally, including that of the third-party vendor implicated in the breach. 

Wouldn’t it be able to easily provide a specific date of its last assessment if that was the case? And should this be made a mandatory provision when companies report a security incident, alongside other details such as how the breach occurred and the parties involved in the breach.

The data storage vendor wasn’t named in the MyRepublic breach, which should lead to further questions about whether other businesses, and their customer data, also were impacted. 

Furthermore, that security breaches did not compromise financial data does not make these leaks any less critical. 

Singapore is small, with few key players in the telecoms market. Chances are high that subscribers here would have been customers of all three telcos at some point, which further increases the likelihood they were affected by all three breaches. This, in effect, means various details of their personal information, spanning their date of birth, national identity numbers, physical address, and mobile number, can be put together to establish a more complete profile. 

It also means cybercriminals would be able to use these different datasets of personally identifiable information (PII), pulled together from three separate security breaches, to clear security questions or verify and assume the identity of their victims. They can convince banks to issue replacement credit cards in the victim’s name, even if no financial data was compromised in any of the security breach. 

Data breach involving any PII should be a concern, especially as cyber threats and risks from third-party attacks continue to increase. 

At a panel discussion in Estonia this week, Singapore’s Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo described cybersecurity as a “wicked” challenge that could not be completely resolved. This, in fact, prompted the country to change its cybersecurity posture from one focused on prevention, to one of “assume breach” position, Teo said. With this mindset, it assumes systems have been breached or compromised, according to the minister, who pointed to the need for constant vigilance and monitoring to identify breaches.

She said it was critical for governments to already have in place response mechanisms to swiftly recover in the event of a breach, including having clear communications to maintain public trust. 

But while it is true that It’s no longer a question of “if” but “when” organisations experience a security breach, this shouldn’t mean organisations can afford to take their feet off the accelerator in doing their due diligence and what is necessary to keep their customer data safe. 

Telcos, in particular, made for bigger targets due to their access to large consumer databases and communications infrastructure, Joanne Wong, LogRhythm’s vice president for international markets, said in a note on MyRepublic’s breach.

“As a digital-first nation, we need to get better at fending against these threats,” Wong said. “We know from experience that there can be far-reaching implications of a single weak link and cannot sit still, and watch the same incidents happen time and time again. Organisations, especially in these essential sectors — need to be proactive and have oversight across their entire digital supply chain, including any third-party vendors. Only when there is constant monitoring and surveillance, can they effectively identify and remediate threats with speed.” 

On how much organisations should invest in cybersecurity. Teo urged the need to understand their risk profile and allocate the appropriate amount of resources to protect their digital assets. She added that Singapore advised local businesses to carry out risk assessments and invest accordingly, rather than going for the minimum so they were in compliance with regulations. 

Above all, “assume breach” position does not mean consumers are expected to accept security breaches as part and parcel of dealing with businesses. 

it should mean organisations must be better able to demonstrate it has done its part in protecting all customer data, including non-financial information, within its own environment as well as across its supply chain. 


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