Human error key factor in privacy vulnerability: McAfee chief privacy officer

Brian Karlovsky

Human error is the key factor in the top three cybersecurity vulnerabilities businesses face, according McAfee chief privacy officer, Michelle Dennedy.

Data privacy must be built into operational systems and data management policies to mitigate the key vulnerability of cyber security — humans

Dennedy, author of The Privacy Engineer's Manifesto, who is visiting Australia to send a message to businesses during Privacy Awareness Week, said even the most comprehensive security system has its flaws, most notably human errors or choices that make security processes less robust and result in a loss of customer privacy.

"We live and work in a digital, IP-connected world where privacy and security vulnerabilities cannot be completely programmed out," she said.

"That being said, the best course of action is to plan for the eventuality of errors by building a privacy infrastructure that places protecting customer data at its heart, and provides clear policies and guidelines for employees who are in charge of managing this type of information.

She said she had seen three recent types of vulnerability which could happen to any business that stored customer account and financial details.

"In each case there's been an important lesson to learn about respect for customer privacy," she said.

The retail sector in particular has seen a spike in attacks on point of sale (POS) systems as cyber criminals exploit an area where there has been little effort to secure customer data.

"We've found that retailers are falling into a 'security by obscurity' trap — they mistakenly believe that their POS system is so customised to their particular business requirements that it would be too difficult for hackers to bypass the controls and access the system," Dennedy said.

"In fact, most use fairly standard systems and processes and it is relatively easy for criminals to gain access to customer account and credit card details; many hackers are using fairly unsophisticated off-the-shelf malware to perpetrate a successful attack.

Some recent data breaches have occurred despite the security system identifying an attack, because the security team ignored or overlooked critical alerts.

The Heartbleed vulnerability in OpenSSL poses one of the most formidable security and privacy concerns in recent memory, given attackers manipulating it could have eavesdropped on communications, stolen data directly from services and users, or impersonated services and users.

Dennedy said Heartbleed was caused by human error in the coding of the software.

"But as this particular technology standard is not very user- or administrator-friendly, the OpenSSL has been implemented poorly in many cases, creating an even broader problem for businesses," she said.

"Technology developers must go further by building privacy controls into their products at their genesis, rather than attempt to bolt it on to technology as an expensive afterthought with risk-liability implications," Dennedy said.

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