Data Breaches: The Complete WIRED Guide


History of data breaches

Data breaches are increasingly common and have been harmful for decades. But a few stand out as instructive examples of how the breaches are created, how attackers can orchestrate these attacks, what can be stolen, and what happens to data once a breach occurs.

Digital data breaches began long before the spread of the Internet, yet in many ways they were similar to the breaches we see today. An early significant incident occurred in 1984 when credit reporting agency TRW Information Systems (now Experian) discovered that one of its database records had been compromised. Trove was protected by a numeric passcode that someone took from a management memo at a Sears store and posted on an “electronic bulletin board” — a sort of Google Doc — that people could access and change with their regular phone connections. Then someone who knew how to view the bulletin board could use the password to access the information stored in TRW’s file: the personal information and credit history of 90 million Americans. The password has been exposed for a month. At the time, TRW said it changed the database password as soon as it became aware of the situation. Although the event was dampened by last year’s breach of credit reporting agency Equifax (discussed below), TRW’s delay was a warning to data firms everywhere—many of which apparently did not heed.

Large-scale breaches, like the TRW incident, have occurred sporadically as the years have passed and the Internet has matured. In the year In the early 2010s, as mobile devices and Internet of Things connections became more widespread, the problem of data breaches became particularly acute. Stealing username/password pairs or credit card numbers—even breaching data sets collected from previously public sources—can give attackers the keys to a person’s online life. And some breaches in particular have helped fuel the growing dark web economy of stolen user data.

One such incident was the LinkedIn breach in 2012, which initially exposed 6.5 million passwords. The data was hashed or scrambled to make it harder to identify and reuse, but hackers quickly began “cracking” the hashes to expose LinkedIn users’ real passwords. Although LinkedIn itself has taken precautions to reset affected account passwords, attackers have still gotten away with them by finding other accounts on the web where users have reused the same password. The more common lax password hygiene means that a single breach can put users out of business for years.

The LinkedIn hack also turned out to be worse than it first appeared. In the year In 2016, a hacker known as “Salaam” began selling account information, particularly email addresses and passwords, from 117 million LinkedIn users. The information stolen from the LinkedIn breach has since been repurposed and resold by criminals, and attackers have had some success using the data to this day, as many people reuse the same passwords across multiple accounts over the years.

Although the year In late 2013 and 2014, data breaches didn’t really become dinner table fodder when major retailers Target, Neiman Marcus, and Home Depot each suffered major breaches. The Target hack, first publicly disclosed in December 2013, affected the personal information (such as names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses) of 70 million Americans and compromised 40 million credit card numbers. A few weeks later, in January 2014, Neiman Marcus said its point-of-sale systems were hit by the same malware that attacked Target, which exposed the information of 110 million Neiman Marcus customers, along with 1.1 million credit and debit accounts. Card numbers. Then, months after those two breaches, Home Depot announced in September 2014 that hackers had stolen 56 million credit and debit card numbers from its systems by installing malware on the company’s payment terminals.

A more sinister and sinister attack was taking place at the same time, however. The Office of Personnel Management is the administrative and human resources department for US government employees. The department administers security clearances, conducts background checks, and maintains records on every past and present federal employee. If you want to know what’s going on in the US government, this is the room to hack. China did the same.

Hackers linked to the Chinese government infiltrated OPM’s network twice, first stealing the network’s technical blueprints in 2013 and launching a second attack shortly thereafter, taking control of an administrative server used to authenticate other server logins. In other words, by the time OPM fully realized what had happened and acted to remove the hackers in 2015, the hackers had managed to steal tens of millions of detailed records about every aspect of federal employees’ lives, including 21.5 million Social Security numbers. and 5.6 million fingerprint records. In some cases, the victims were not even federal employees, but were somehow related to government employees who had undergone background checks. (Those checks include all kinds of highly specialized information, such as maps of a subject’s family, friends, partners, and children.)


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