Is Legislation The Right Weapon To Fight Cybercrime?


Around the world, data breaches are a huge problem with both Government and private industry struggling to mitigate the problem of lost data. In the majority of countries companies, that are breached, face even greater penalties as they’re fined for ‘allowing’ the violation. This approach has proven only mildly successful since most firms game the system by weighing potential fines against the risk of a breach.

Here in the UK, a report calling for tougher personal data abuse laws was recently issued by the justice select committee. In it they recommend that courts should have the power to jail people—such as hackers or insiders—who breach the data protection act. Legislation to address the problem is a necessary step. However, the question is: will it work?

To have an impact, any legislation needs to consider that hackers are well-financed, well-organized innovators. In fact, to fund their activities, hackers have created mature online exchanges that resemble eBay in structure, except their focus is selling personal and corporate data.

Just a few months ago, a hacker offered to sell full administrative rights to government, military and educational websites for $499. So, for the price of an iPad, you could have purchased the ability to control a military website.

And they’re remarkably well organized. Lulzsec, a hacker team comprised of about eight individuals, proved very effective, hacking the FBI, U.S. Senate and CIA websites. How did they learn the trade? Like many hackers, to stay well trained and organized, they leveraged online forums and chat rooms.

These websites exemplify the spirit of web-based collaboration and education, offering a rich menu of tutorials, advice and technology designed to steal data. Analysis of one forum with 250,000 registered users showed that approximately 25% of discussions were focused on hacking tutorials and techniques — indicating a consistent supply of expertise.

By contrast, the good guys are on a budget — often very tight ones. Whereas hackers live to hack, most companies are retailers, banks, whatever first and security experts a distant second, third or fourth. Slapping them with fines will only encourage gaming the system, like someone speeding on a highway and slowing down if they think the police are near.

In the case of security, companies could evaluate the odds of a breach and the cost of security versus the cost of a fine. To avoid this dynamic requires a prescriptive approach.

The good news is that a template already exists: The credit card industry regulated itself and created the payment card industry data security standard (PCI-DSS). PCI forced companies transacting credit cards to implement the basic elements of data security that were summarized in 12 specific steps.

The impact? A report from Verizon highlighted that 88% (!) of companies breached in 2010 were out of compliance with PCI. It’s a system that’s working.

To be effective, any legislation should be prescriptive and strongly consider the PCI model. PCI can also be a model for legislative innovation. Ohio and Minnesota have both adopted their versions of PCI as models to protect their citizens’ sensitive information.

Another variation surfaced recently when the state of Nevada, beginning on January 1, 2010, became the first state to mandate PCI-DSS compliance for businesses that accept credit cards. In other words, any data collector doing business in Nevada must comply with the version of the PCI-DSS currently in force.

The adoption of PCI-DSS by Nevada combines the best of what the private and public sector do well — the flexibility and innovation of a private-industry standard with the enforceability and visibility of state action.

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Rob Rachwald is a 12 year veteran in the IT industry. Currently, he manages the security strategy for Imperva. Previously, he managed product marketing and communications for Fortify, which was purchased by HP. Additionally, Rob has worked at Commerce One, Intel and Coverity.