Max Vetter | 28 January 2016
The impact of the hack on TalkTalk was rapid and dramatic; in one day its share price fell by 12% and in total an estimated £360 million was wiped off its value. The direct one-off cost of dealing with the hack was reportedly more than £30 million.A number of the alleged hackers have been arrested and it appears rather than organised criminals or a nation-state this hack was perpetrated by a group of teenagers ranging in age from 15 to 20.
Without belittling the skill of the teenagers, it is safe to say that of “threat actors” of concern to corporations and governments, mischievous teenagers should sit somewhere near the bottom of the risk scale. The fact they appear to have been caught shows their lower level of expertise, and sets this hack apart from other notable cyber intrusions; such as Sony where it is still hotly debated who did it, let alone whether they will be brought to justice. Despite this, the hack showed just how much damage a unsophisticated group of hackers can still have on a company.
The publicity surrounding the hack was bad for TalkTalk’s share price, but at least they identified they had been breached at all. One study found that in 2014 it took up to 205 days for most companies to even discover a breach. The same study also found that typically it takes hackers seconds to breach a system and only minutes to exfiltrate the data they are interested in. More often than not the public never knows about the many cyber intrusions that occur, making understanding the scale of the problem even more difficult.
In the TalkTalk case the attackers reportedly used a simple vulnerability in the company website to launch what is known as an blind SQL injection attack; a way of querying and breaching the database sitting behind a website. This should not have been a difficult vulnerability to identify and fix. This was made worse by bad security procedures by TalkTalk; the credentials for one administrator were found to be username: tim, password: tim.
The Teenagers in question are unlikely to have had a wider strategy for using, passing-on or profiting from the information they stole, which would undoubtedly already happened if the hack was carried out by an organised criminal group. A number of the hackers involved have already stated that it was just done for “a laugh”. This should give TalkTalk’s shareholders something to be happy about and the impact on customers stolen data is likely to be much lower than first suspected. In general the more public the hack, the easier it is to find what information has been stolen and to mitigate against any disclosure. Suffering three public hacks in the space of a year makes it clear that TalkTalk is doing something wrong when it comes to cyber security. The latest hack was not a complex or difficult problem to fix and should have been identified if the company was employing ethical hackers and penetration testers.
There are extensive lists of procedures that can be put in place to increase cyber security, all which take money and staff. Ethical hacking is usually at the very end of most lists, and as one of the most expensive to be implemented it is often not done, this is a problem because it is potentially the most important to carry out. Without skilled professionals testing a network and system just like the real hackers would there is no way of knowing what holes there are left in the security infrastructure.
As TalkTalk found, the money spent trying to mitigate a cyber attack is vastly more than putting in effective procedures before it happens. The irony is that even if millions are spent on the highest level of cyber security it still does not guarantee that all attacks will be stopped.
A good cyber security infrastructure will stop many attacks, including the one TalkTalk was victim to but sadly complete security can never be guaranteed. Knowing this and preparing for what to do when breach does occur is another useful part of a complete cyber security strategy.