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Blackmail rising from Ashley Madison breach

Taylor Armerding | Sept. 9, 2015
Cyber criminals, always adaptable, are still attacking enterprises. But when the opportunities arise, they are getting personal as well.

It can start with a breach of personal information that, initially, has nothing to do with an embarrassing website like Ashley Madison, according to Rebecca Herold, CEO of The Privacy Professor.

Using that information, criminals can “create accounts on unsavory sites and then extort money from their victims in exchange for not telling friends, family and employers about it,” she said. “Many speculate that this is the case for some of those who were discovered on the Ashley Madison site.”

Impact Team, the group that claimed responsibility for hacking Ashley Madison, professed to be doing so to damage or destroy a company it considered immoral. But Suni Munshani, CEO of Protegrity, noted that, “the consequences of a breach can go well beyond the intentions of the original hacker once the data are released.”

“One thing we know for sure it’s that criminals will always find new targets and new ways to exploit information about those targets for their own advantage,” he said.

Indeed, an estimated 15,000 U.S. government and military emails were on the Ashley Madison list of customers. Combine that with the breach discovered this past June of the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which reportedly compromised the personal information of an estimated 21 million current and former federal employees, and the blackmail possibilities are enormous.

That kind of “rich data,” Munshani said, means, “the personal and professional blackmail opportunities against individuals whose data were included in both incidents, as well as the organizations they work for, increases exponentially.”

It is hard to know how pervasive cyber blackmail is, experts say, because it doesn’t always get reported. “It’s not the kind of thing individuals publicize,” Delmar said.

Munshani agreed. “Successful blackmailing – when companies meet the demands of the blackmailers – flies under the radar of public exposure,” he said.

But there is general agreement that it is a growth industry for cyber criminals.

As usual, there is no way to guarantee 100% protection from such crime – the well-established cliché is that there are two types of organizations - those that know they have been breached, and those that have, but don’t know it. Still, organizations can make it less likely that they will be damaged from a breach.

Munshani said one way to do that is to protect the data with limited access and strong encryption, so that when hackers inevitably breach firewalls and other defenses, "all they would see is meaningless gobbledygook."

Delmar had a similar message, noting that, "good security hygiene" includes, "encrypt the data, control access and monitor for exfiltration attempts.

The general advice is a reminder that nothing online is truly secure, no matter how dedicated to security an organization is.


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