Joe Parrish recently posted a comment on his Facebook wall about a visit with his sister to his 27 friends.
Sounds harmless, right? There are innumerable similar messages posted everyday on many different social media sites. What sets this scenario apart is that Joe Parrish is an inmate at the US-based Pocahontas State Correctional Center within the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC), serving a 16-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter.
Parrish was able to update his page by relaying information to family members, who colluded with him in posting the information.
When DOC officials became aware of the activity, they had the page removed. But the fact is that social networking remains fertile ground for the many with a criminal mindset – even for those who have been caught.
“Social networks create a new type of communication structure – one that encourages openness, sharing, collaboration and cooperation,” says Ed Amoroso, senior vice president and chief security officer of AT&T. “These are wonderful goals, but unfortunately sometimes create special challenges for security teams. The security goal should be to ensure that proper controls are in place for emerging social networks – beyond the ‘friend model' we see in many common systems, and that these controls maintain the original collaborative objectives.”
Take a look at the US Secret Service's 10 Most Wanted list, and you'll find a common pattern: fraudulent activity. This most often occurs not with a loaded gun, but in the form of a nonviolent crime where someone, often in a far-off nation, used their ability to capture information from some infrastructure to steal personal information or assets
For example, the wanted list describes a Hong Kong man who parlayed his knowledge of a health care company to steer claims payments directly to his own account in Asia.
Peruse the list and you'll find clever criminals who take money, Social Security numbers, and detailed personal information out of the pockets of thousands of people without ever setting foot outside, often in a country located halfway around the world from most of their victims – and without ever using force.
“It is increasingly easier for hackers to obtain personal information online that is voluntarily posted by individuals,” says Theodore Theisen, director of information security, forensics and data breaches for Kroll, a security consulting firm. “With the increased personal information available, hackers subsequently have much more information that can be used to socially engineer their way into corporate networks. As a result of all of this information, there is an increase in spear [targeted] phishing attacks.”
The worst part of this is that victims may never know anything is going on. “An additional risk is that, in general, there is no transparency into failed login attempts on social networking websites,” says Theisen. “If a hacker tries to brute force their way into a social networking website account, there would be no way of knowing these attempts were being made. If similar or same passwords are being used by individuals to login to their social network accounts as their enterprise account, the hacker is much closer to being able to obtain unauthorised access to your business.”
Just last month, a new variant of the Ramnit virus was discovered stealing login credentials of more than 45,000 Facebook users. Computers are infected through drive-by download attacks, which occur when users simply visit a malicious website and become infected without taking any action.
The danger, says Aviv Raff, CTO of Seculert, whose research lab discovered the attack, is that the miscreants could parlay the personal information they've gathered to launch further targeted attacks. Users should not use the same password for Facebook and other online services, such as Gmail, Raff adds.
Michael Logan, president of delivery and operations for Axis Technology, a provider of data masking software, says social networks encourage the sharing of information in an unfiltered and unsecured manner, and this presents a Pandora's box of problems that seems to frustrate security professionals.
“This presents new risks for enterprises that they don't know how to manage,” he says. “The typical reaction is to shut down access to social networking sites. However, business people are not willing to do this since they see exciting potential in social networks.”
The current trend is for social networking sites, like LinkedIn and Facebook, to provide more security- and privacy-related features, he says. However, these sites don't want to make it harder for their users to “share” with their social network. The result is a set of capabilities that are a compromise and can be confusing to users.
Logan says personal information, often thought to be a wonderful facet of social networking engagement, may be a haunting enigma when it comes to security breaches.
“Employees and managers need to be aware of what will happen to information they share,” he says. “Most social networking sites have privacy policies that are opt-out based. This means you basically share everything unless you explicitly tell the site you don't want to share it. Most enterprises would prefer an opt-in strategy, where you only share information based on choices you explicitly agreed to. The risk is that many people will have to make a mistake and share some information they did not want to before they learn how to opt-out, and this process could be painful.”
Next: Data hygiene