For industry observers, watching the Equifax breach unfold is like watching a slow-motion train wreck. For nearly half of the American population, it’s a real-life horror movie. This breach contains so many layers – from the suspected vulnerability exploit that led to the breach of more than 143M consumer records, to the lagged disclosure and the PR nightmare still underway.
With congressional testimony and multi-state probes still to come, Equifax has forced sweeping regulatory reviews. I sat down with eSentire Vice President and Industry Security Strategist, Mark Sangster to talk about what to expect as investigations continue.
Mandy Bachus (MB): The Department of Financial Services (DFS) recently announced new breach disclosure regulations. Do we know if Equifax violated those requirements?
Mark Sangster (MS): This is an excellent question which I think should be considered in context of the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law. A search of the DFS portal does not yield a result for Equifax. This is likely because the firm is not based in New York (it’s headquarted in Atlanta, Georgia). This means that, on the surface, Equifax was not governed by the NYCRR regulations that do cover timely reporting within 72 hours. That said, we can assume many of Equifax financial clients would include banks and insurance companies that operate in the state of New York. Given that nearly half the population of the United States was affected by the breach, these financial institutions would most likely have consumer clients included in that.
The question then becomes, when were the financial institutions relying on Equifax notified of the breach? When did they become aware that their customers may be exploited? With such a significant breach, why did it take so long to inform the banks, who then would have 72 hours to report to the DFS?
The focus then shifts to the DFS. When did they become aware of the breach, and why did it remain so quiet for over a month? The risk to consumers begins to drop exponentially as soon as the breach becomes public, allowing them to take defensive measures to protect their financial identity and funds.
So, back to my original division. Perhaps the letter of the law was met, but the spirit of protecting the consumer for abuse was completely violated. Which is worse: that the companies and regulators were aware of the breach and did not notify the public? Or that they were completely caught off guard? Either way, the consumer is the ultimate victim.
MB: We haven’t seen much in the way of enforcement. What can we expect?
MS: This is a monumental breach in terms of both the number of people affected and the potentially damaging nature of the stolen information. I would assume that regulators, law enforcement and government will likely be considering all actions within the mechanisms of the law when it comes to this event. This is potentially a Sarbanes-Oxley like event where law uses this event to drive tighter corporate laws and regulations.
More importantly, this type of event should trigger a public examination to help us understand what happened and by extension, how to prevent a similar breach in the future. These sorts of events are akin to an airplane crash. While the resulting investigation often exposes a root cause, such as pilot error or mechanical failure, such disasters are the culmination of many complex systems interacting and perhaps compounding a cause that then leads to critical failure. Other factors come into play: regulations, costs, airline policies, weather, etc. Undoubtedly, Equifax will be under investigation, and will, like the airplane crash corollary, yield a myriad of factors compounding into extinction event breach. Let’s hope transparency prevails, and we don’t have to glean pieces of the investigation from snippets that appear in public court transcripts from litigation and potential class action suits.
MB: Some question the efficacy of existing regulations. If properly adhered to, could today’s regulations have prevented this kind of event?
MS: The DFS cybersecurity regulations are certainly the most stringent and comprehensive set of guidelines, and other states are watching closely while considering adopting similar rules. Unfortunately, most regulations evolve in response to a major tectonic event. Using the airline safety analogy, most rules and guidelines were written in response to a disaster. We learn from our mistakes. But we are not as good at predicting new risks and preemptively mitigating them.
However, DFS rules have industry-best notification laws. So, it goes back to the question of why it took so long to notify the public.
MB: Even with stringent regulations, does it fool-proof and protect companies from attacks?
MS: There is an adage in security which says you can be 100% compliant and yet 100% owned by the criminals. Until we know what happened, there is no way to know if the DFS regulations would have prevented the breach.
MB: Do we have a clear picture of which state laws or regulations Equifax may have violated?
MS: Atlanta-based Equifax is bound by the state breach notification laws of Georgia, which require a firm to report a breach and that notice shall be made in the most expedient time possible and without unreasonable delay. In some circumstances, notification is to be made within 24 hours. Did Equifax meet this requirement and do everything in its power to protect those affected by the breach? That is still the question.