H4cked Off: OMGWTFBBQ!

20 May 2011

ssumnerIf you've ever frequented an internet forum, besides dodging the incessant sniping, flaming and accusations of being just like Hitler, you might have seen the odd acronym that I've chosen as this week's title.

Whilst I won't translate it for you (come on, it's not hard to work out), I will describe it as an expression of extreme frustration. That's the sort of emotion you might be feeling right now if you're a Sony customer.

Not content with leaking the personal (and in some cases financial) details of over 100,000 customers following a cyber attack, it has stumbled, Harold Lloyd-like, into a succession of security and PR failures since.

Let's have a look at what Sony's done so far:

• Took a week to tell anyone about the breach. Given the extent of the attack, and that other DDoS attacks were being perpetrated simultaneously, you could argue that it should be forgiven for this one.

• Complained (in a letter to the US House of Representatives) that it was hard to detect the hack. Yes, welcome to the internet. Hacks are often hard to detect, that's often sort of the point.

• Complained that it was hard to know what was stolen because the hackers deleted the log files: see above. Log files are all well and good but if your forensic capability begins and ends with log files then you're living in 1996.

• Finally began to bring the PlayStation Network (PSN) back online... then immediately had to take it down again because everyone was changing their passwords and the system couldn't keep up. Not a massive issue, but what were they expecting people were going to do when access was restored?

• The PSN comes back online again...then the password reset pages are taken down as reports of another vulnerability emerge, where anyone can hack an account simply by knowing the username, and date of birth used in its creation.

At the time of writing the PSN is up across most countries, and normal services appear to have been restored... for now.

But what can we learn from Sony's experience? Hackers are good at what they do? Everyone is vulnerable, even (or perhaps especially) large organisations? Nothing new there.

Since the initial attack, Sony has engaged external security advisers both to plug the security hole, and help to ensure there aren't others. It has also announced that it will appoint a new CISO (chief information security officer), who will report directly to the CIO.

To my mind, given the scale, severity and notoriety of the problem, it doesn't appear to have done an awful lot. And the reason is that ultimately it doesn't need to. It all comes down to financials, quel surprise. Sony needs to balance the cost of its restorative measures against the cost of doing nothing.

And the cost of doing nothing is very low. Plug the breach sure, as making exactly the same mistake twice will incur the wrath of the governments of several countries in which the corporation operates. But don't go overboard. Don't bother changing your infrastructure, or stripping out your existing (and patently ineffective) security measures and replacing them with more layers.

The harsh reality is Sony just needs to make a few of the right noises, give its customers a little compensation (both of which it has done), and then it's back to business as usual.

After all, its customers just want to get back to playing games. They're not all going to switch to Xbox Live; they've invested in the PlayStation platform and its games, so very few will jump ship. OK, they might type a few obscenities onto internet forums, some may even go as far as OMGWTFBBQ, but they'll be back on the PSN soon enough, credit card details and all.

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