Information Security: "We Can Do It, We Just Choose Not To"

Posted: Fri, 14 June 2024 | permalink | 2 Comments

Whenever a large corporation disgorges the personal information of millions of people onto the Internet, there is a standard playbook that is followed.

“Security is our top priority”.

“Passwords were hashed”.

“No credit card numbers were disclosed”.

record scratch

Let’s talk about that last one a bit.

A Case Study

This post could have been written any time in the past… well, decade or so, really. But the trigger for my sitting down and writing this post is the recent breach of wallet-finding and criminal-harassment-enablement platform Tile. As reported by Engadget, a statement attributed to Life360 CEO Chris Hulls says

The potentially impacted data consists of information such as names, addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, and Tile device identification numbers.

But don’t worry though; even though your home address is now public information

It does not include more sensitive information, such as credit card numbers

Aaaaaand here is where I get salty.

Why Credit Card Numbers Don’t Matter

Describing credit card numbers as “more sensitive information” is somewhere between disingenuous and a flat-out lie. It was probably included in the statement because it’s part of the standard playbook. Why is it part of the playbook, though?

Not being a disaster comms specialist, I can’t say for sure, but my hunch is that the post-breach playbook includes this line because (a) credit cards are less commonly breached these days (more on that later), and (b) it’s a way to insinuate that “all your financial data is safe, no need to worry” without having to say that (because that statement would absolutely be a lie).

The thing that not nearly enough people realise about credit card numbers is:

  1. The credit card holder is not usually liable for most fraud done via credit card numbers; and

  2. In terms of actual, long-term damage to individuals, credit card fraud barely rates a mention. Identity fraud, Business Email Compromise, extortion, and all manner of other unpleasantness is far more damaging to individuals.

Why Credit Card Numbers Do Matter

Losing credit card numbers in a data breach is a huge deal – but not for the users of the breached platform. Instead, it’s a problem for the company that got breached.

See, going back some years now, there was a wave of huge credit card data breaches. If you’ve been around a while, names like Target and Heartland will bring back some memories.

Because these breaches cost issuing banks and card brands a lot of money, the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council (PCI-SSC) and the rest of the ecosystem went full goblin mode. Now, if you lose credit card numbers in bulk, it will cost you big. Massive fines for breaches (typically levied by the card brands via the acquiring bank), increased transaction fees, and even the Credit Card Death Penalty (being banned from charging credit cards), are all very big sticks.

Now Comes the Finding Out

In news that should not be surprising, when there are actual consequences for failing to do something, companies take the problem seriously. Which is why “no credit card numbers were disclosed” is such an interesting statement.

Consider why no credit card numbers were disclosed. It’s not that credit card numbers aren’t valuable to criminals – because they are. Instead, it’s because the company took steps to properly secure the credit card data.

Next, you’ll start to consider why, if the credit card numbers were secured, why wasn’t the personal information that did get disclosed similarly secured? Information that is far more damaging to the individuals to whom that information relates than credit card numbers.

The only logical answer is that it wasn’t deemed financially beneficial to the company to secure that data. The consequences of disclosure for that information isn’t felt by the company which was breached. Instead, it’s felt by the individuals who have to spend weeks of their life cleaning up from identity fraud committed against them. It’s felt by the victim of intimate partner violence whose new address is found in a data dump, letting their ex find them again.

Until there are real, actual consequences for the companies which hemorrhage our personal data (preferably ones that have “percentage of global revenue” at the end), data breaches will continue to happen. Not because they’re inevitable – because as credit card numbers show, data can be secured – but because there’s no incentive for companies to prevent our personal data from being handed over to whoever comes along.

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From: Hunchman2
2024-06-14 21:42

Could it be that the company simply uses some payment provider like Stripe and they never touch any credit card numbers precisely because of the associated risk?

In that case if they were to handle credit card numbers on their own, they also would have been breached.

From: Matt Palmer
2024-06-15 11:21

They may well do so. Choosing to outsource the processing of sensitive information (or, indeed, choosing not to store it at all) is a choice, exactly as much of a choice as leaving personal information unprotected so that it can be breached.

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