Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost tells the biblical story of the fall of man: Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve and their resulting expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The Paradise Papers breach tells a similar story: a tempting treasure trove of business and personal tax filings that trace a trail of wealth and tax shelters throughout the world’s elite. And if the allegory holds true, might lead to the expulsion of the offending law firm from the Garden of Blue-chip business Eden. The hackers bit the apple. In fact, they stole the entire grove!
On October 26th, a blue-chip offshore investment firm, Appleby Group admitted to a data breach and to notifying affected clients. One week later, the 13.4M leaked documents (1.4TB worth of data) were obtained by German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and a network of more than 380 journalists in 67 countries. The documents were published, revealing numerous leading politicians who were legally tax sheltering funds in offshore accounts.
The Queen of the United Kingdom, several ex-Prime Ministers of Canada, thousands of other wealthy elites, and inner circle members of US President Trump’s camp have all been exposed for sheltering tax funds through legal channels brokered by the Appleby group. While their activity is legal, it certainly strikes an unethical chord with those who elected officials who ran on ‘America First’, have ordered austerity measures against their own citizens, or simply are supposed to be the moral compass always pointing to true righteous north.
According to the Appleby Group’s own media communications, the breach was caused by external actors using illegal access to their clients’ confidential information:
"We wish to reiterate that our firm was not the subject of a leak but of a serious criminal act. This was an illegal computer hack. Our systems were accessed by an intruder who deployed the tactics of a professional hacker and covered his/her tracks to the extent that a forensic investigation by a leading international Cyber & Threats team concluded that there was no definitive evidence that any data had left our systems. This was not the work of anybody who works at Appleby.”
Law firms are privy to a myriad of confidential information that can be used to front run trades, evade prosecution or perhaps topple governments (or at least select politicians). Last year’s attack on Wall Street law firms Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP and Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, demonstrated how stolen information such as FDA filings and press releases could be used to front run trades.
The Paradise Papers represents the next evolution of the Panama Papers. Even tax law information can be monetized or weaponized by (self-proclaimed) ethical hackers. Even some sleepy law firm in a tropical paradise could house the type of information that can destabilize a government or ruin the career of elitist politicians and socialites.
Hackers are no longer stumbling across such cyber ammunition, they are on the hunt for it, and stalking their prey. Law and accounting firms should raise the alarm when it comes to their firm’s cybersecurity rigor. The depth and magnitude of this breach are far reaching.
The Paradise Papers should serve as a warning for law firms who have built a cyber practice based on a strategy of loss and recovery. All too many firms take out cyber insurance while retaining disaster recovery services to restore their data and infrastructure after an attack. No amount of insurance, back-up systems nor business continuity plans can put the genie back in its bottle.
This event, allegedly conducted by external hackers, could likely have been detected and mitigated. What ends in a business disrupting event often begins with the click on a harmless looking link. Sometimes it involves complex social engineering, credential harvesting and clandestine operations inside the network to locate and slowly exfiltrate valuable data.
In either case, hackers leave a trail that cyber hunters can use to detect these attacks. It takes trained eyes, round the clock, looking for the tell-tale signs of sinister activity. And once detected, this vigilance is only as good, as the firm’s ability to block suspicious traffic and isolate suspicious devices while conducting full forensics analysis to confirm and eliminate the threat.
It’s called Managed Detection and Response. Capital ‘D’ and capital ‘R”. After the fact response based on SIEM log correlation or managed detection with no response capabilities leaves law firms and other business susceptible to similarly devastating attacks.
The Paradise papers is less about yielding to temptation and more about protecting your reputation. In the digital age, Adam and Eve are firm employees. The Garden of Eden in your business. And the tree of life is your client’s data. And the fallen angel, well he’s just a humble cyber-criminal, tempting you with a clever phishing attempt. Perhaps he’s not after your immortal soul, but he still has a knack for creating a living hell out of your and your clients’ reputations.
Are you worried about a breach? Here are some simple steps your firm’s team should apply today to improve its security rigor and protect against the rudimentary attacks that can lead to large scale breach events:
Reduce the threat surface:
- Ensure patches are up-to-date.
- Configure IPS and Firewalls policies to reject information gathering events.
- Enforce acceptable use policies and couple those with continuous user education.
Disrupt the tradecraft:
- Deny known open-source tools used for external scanning.
- Change default configurations and passwords.
- Focus on patching the most exploitable vulnerabilities first.