By Justin Worland
September 19, 2014

As Home Depot continues to assess the damage caused by a security breach that gave hackers access to 56 million credit and debit cards, tech experts say large retailers should turn their attention to addressing breaches quickly instead of trying to prevent all of them.

“Are we spending most of our money on trying to keep the bad guys out or trying to detect as soon as possible when the bad guys get in?” asked cyber crime expert Brian Krebs, framing the issue rhetorically. “The best you can do is stop the bleeding as soon as possible when they do get in.”

At Home Depot, where hackers used malware to collect customer data at cash registers, it reportedly took nine months for the breach to be identified and stopped allowing for the damage to affect millions of customers.

Companies face myriad and evolving ways their data can be breached, making protecting data akin to a game of whac-a-mole. Once one potential threat is identified, hackers have already begun trying to get through another way. Instead of devoting all their resources to chasing the threats, companies should focus on minimizing the time it takes to identity those breaches, said Brian Foster, chief technology officer at cyber security firm Damballa.

“There are two types of companies: those that have been breached and those that don’t know they’ve been breached yet,” he said. “The attackers only have to find one door in whereas Home Depot has to secure all their doors and before they do that they need to know where all the doors are at.”

But even if retailers like Home Depot switch focus to detection from protection, experts say they need to do a better job securing data. And, for retailers, the first place to look is the “point of sale system” where the transaction occurred (the cash register for traditional retailers).

“Some enhancement of that logical access in the point of sale would have been able to harden the system significantly,” said Guy Levy, senior vice president at technology security firm Usher. “This is part of what any big retailer that employs pos systems should be doing now. They should all be scrutinizing their systems very, very hard.”

Despite the recommendations of security experts, many companies remain reluctant to devote the funding to change. But dealing with massive security breaches almost always costs more in the long-term than instituting preventive measures would have cost. Home Depot said the breach at the company will cost at least $62 million.

“It takes awhile to update your technology, to understand the threat,” said Anup Ghosh, founder and CEO of technology security firm Invincea. “But the most expensive dollar spent in security is spent after a breach.”

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