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Hong Kong Privacy Watchdog Orders Cathay to Overhaul IT Systems Over 2018 Data Breach
Hong Kong’s Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data Stephen Kai-yi Wong has ordered Cathay Pacific Airways Limited and Hong Kong Dragon Airlines Limited, collectively referred to as Cathay, to overhaul its IT systems containing personal data of its customers over the 2018 data breach which affected approximately 9.4 million passengers from different parts of the world.
On October 24, 2018, Cathay notified both the public and Hong Kong’s Privacy Commissioner for Personal Dataover the detected suspicious activity on its network on March 13, 2018. According to Cathay, approximately 9.4 million Cathay passengers, specifically those who availed the company’s frequent flyer programs Asia Miles and Marco Polo Club as well as registered users of Cathay from over 260 locations worldwide were affected by the cyber incident. The affected personal data of Cathay passengers include name, flight number and date, title, email address, membership number, address and phone number.
Customers of both Cathay Pacific Airways Limited and Hong Kong Dragon Airlines Limited, also known as Cathay Dragon, were affected as Cathay Pacific managed and provided information management services to Cathay Dragon. With this set-up, personal data of Cathay Dragon’s passengers reside on Cathay Pacific’s IT System.
The “Data Breach Incident Investigation Report” publicly released by Hong Kong’s Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data – with many of the data coming from the disclosure of Cathay itself – identified three cyber incidents on Cathay systems: keylogger attack in October 2014, exploitation of a known security vulnerability attack in August 2017 and brute force attack in March 2018.
The earliest evidence of keylogger malicious software (malware) activity on the company’s system was on October 15, 2014. In keylogging, every keystroke made on a computer, such as usernames and passwords, is captured and these captured data are automatically sent to the attackers for criminal exploitation. It wasn’t known how the unknown attacker or attackers initially intrude the company’s system that led to the dropping of the keylogger malware.
Valid user account login details stolen via the keylogger malware, according to the report, enabled the attackers to move further into the company’s network and dropped additional tools to steal domain credentials.
Exploitation of Known Vulnerability Attack
The earliest evidence of suspicious activity where it was found that the attackers exploited a known vulnerability on the company’s internet facing server was on August 10, 2017. The exploitation of this known vulnerability allowed the attackers to bypass authentication and gain administrative access to the company’s internet facing server.
Exploiting the known vulnerability also allowed the attackers to move laterally inside the company’s IT system and install malware and credential harvesting tools. It wasn’t disclosed what particular vulnerability on the company’s internet facing server was exploited. It was, however, revealed that this particular security vulnerability was publicly known as early as 2007.
Brute Force Attack
The earliest evidence of brute force attack on the company’s system was on March 13, 2018 which resulted in approximately 500 staff users being locked out of their user accounts. In a brute force attack, a cyber attacker attempts to crack the correct username and password using a trial and error approach. There are currently brute force attack tools available to attackers that automate the process of guessing the correct username and password using thousands of commonly used usernames and passwords.
Even as the keylogger attack which happened in October 2014, exploitation of a known security vulnerability attack in August 2017 and brute force attack in March 2018, Cathy only informed the public and Hong Kong’s Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data about the suspicious activity on its network on October 24, 2018. In Hong Kong, however, there’s no law that mandates organizations such as Cathay to notify within a prescribed period of time the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data and the data subjects of a data breach.
“Cathay did not take all reasonably practicable steps to protect the Affected Passengers’ personal data against unauthorised access in terms of vulnerability management, adoption of effective technical security measures and data governance, contravening DPP 4(1) of Schedule 1 to the Ordinance [Hong Kong’s Personal Data Ordinance],” Wong said.
The Commissioner, in particular, found Cathay had not taken reasonably practicable steps not to expose the administrator console port of its internet facing server which opened the door for attackers. “Cathay should have applied effective multi-factor authentication to all remote access users for accessing its IT System involving personal data,” The Commissioner said.
Data Breach Prevention
Under Hong Kong’s Personal Data Ordinance, if after an investigation, the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data finds that a data user is contravening or has contravened a requirement under the Ordinance, the Commissioner may serve on the data user an Enforcement Notice to prevent recurrence of the lapses. The Commissioner’s Enforcement Notice directed Cathay to engage an independent data security expert to “overhaul the systems containing personal data to the effect that these systems are free from known malware and known vulnerabilities”.
The Commissioner also directed Cathay to implement effective multi-factor authentication to all remote users for accessing the company’s IT System involving personal data and to conduct a regular review of remote access privileges.
In order to prevent Cathay-like data breach, it’s also important to keep all your organization’s software, especially server operating systems up-to-date, as attackers typically try to exploit known software security vulnerabilities.
Navigating the world of cybersecurity can be difficult for many businesses, including large enterprises.
Steve E. Driz, I.S.P., ITCP