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The Take Away from Global Payments Breach

Gunter Ollmann

Global Payments, an Atlanta-based payment card processing firm, announced yesterday that they had suffered "unauthorized access into a portion of its processing system”. Sometime in early March they uncovered the attack, and there are some indications that the breach occurred between January 21st and February 25th of this year.

At the moment there is very little public information relating to the nature of the breach, merely that the details of an estimated 10,000,000 cards (track 1 and track 2 — effectively what's needed to clone physical cards) have been slurped by the attacker(s). Global Payments will be holding a conference call Monday, April 2, 2012 at 8:00 AM EDT. Personally, I'm not expecting much in the way of additional information concerning the method and vectors of the breach to be discussed — but would expect a lot about what they've done to reduce fraudulent use of the stolen card details.

There are a number of unverified reports that a New York City street gang with Central American ties took control of "an administrative account that was not protected sufficiently". Hopefully a little more light will be shed over the following days as to the nature of the breach — less so for closing the case at Global Payments, but more for others to learn from and to not repeat these kinds of mistakes.

When it comes to breaches like this — as in attacks that appear to target large organizations that hold large volumes of easily sellable data in the digital underground — the three most common vectors from my experience are the following:

  1. Insider threat – An insider with detailed knowledge of the businesses operations is able to install tools or access administrative accounts that enable large volumes of confidential information to be copied and transported out of the organization — past existing data inspection technologies. Often the transport mechanism is a USB device or a password-protected file that is uploaded to an external Internet server.
  2. Crimeware installation – A system within the organization is breached through standard drive-by-download or phishing email vectors and a full-featured crimeware agent is installed. The malicious agent registers itself with a criminal's remote command and control (C&C) server and drops a bunch of stolen data relating to that single compromised host. The criminals inspect the small amount of stolen data and realize that they have access to a host within an interesting organization and turn on some additional functions of the crimeware agent to better enumerate the devices and accounts within the breached organization. Armed with a better understanding of the organization and a number of captured accounts and their passwords, the criminals may begin to remotely access other systems within the breached organization or, more likely, sell access to the device to someone that is more capable and better prepared to hack the victim's network.
  3. Remote account access – Somewhere along the line the organization has enabled a number of remote access portals or VPN's to enable staff and business partners to access key servers or update data records. Some of these services have been poorly secured or, most likely, particular accounts have been uncovered and fully enumerated by the attackers. Armed with the accounts user ID and password, the attacker(s) can simply log in remotely and slurp down the data they want.

For organizations likely to suffer from such targeted breaches (whether or not the initial breach was due to an opportunistic or non-targeted infection vector), there are obviously a myriad of technologies and tactics that can be implemented (any typically are) to timely identify and limit the loss from a breach. Some of the most successful approaches I've seen in recent years are the following:

  • Canary accounts — Dropping in a number of records that appear to be real in to key databases and record repositories, and carefully monitoring access to these particular accounts. For example, these may be credit cards that exist only within the card processing organization and if any external merchant tries to process a transaction against such a card it would be clear that data has been leaked. These canary accounts can also be used to track data propagation within the network from a data-leakage perspective.
  • Administrative accounts that aren't — By including a number of accounts within internal corporate email address books and servers that appear to be administrative (or high privilege accounts), monitoring systems can be set to alert if anyone attempts to email them, or use the accounts to access any server. This will alert the organization to many internal breaches earlier than watching for externally used canary accounts.
  • Destination monitoring - By tracking all egress traffic and identifying both anomaly traffic patterns to standard business entities and to "unexpected" destinations, it is possible to gain early warning of a breach in progress.
  • Cybercriminal C&C monitoring - The most likely breach vector that the victim organization is going to be able to proactively detect and protect against is going to be against remotely controllable crimeware. By knowing which Internet infrastructure is related to what criminal operators it becomes an automated process of identifying crimeware infected computers operating within their organization and prioritizing their remediation over standard malware infections.

Hopefully most organizations are aware that modern crimeware rarely comes through the front door in an easily inspectable form. Even insider threats have found it increasingly advantageous to use their own crimeware as a method of remotely accessing devices within the targeted organization and transporting the stolen data out. As such there is a need to identify egress traffic associated with crimeware and to instrument the organization to detect canary data records and administrative accounts.

With a bit of luck we'll get more insight to the Global Payments breach over the coming weeks. However, I suspect that it's going to be the same old story again. The cybercriminals have better tools than their victims and are more agile in their deployment and use.

By Gunter Ollmann, Chief Technology Officer at IOActive. More blog posts from Gunter Ollmann can also be read here.

Related topics: Cybercrime, Malware, Security

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