Data Security, Encryption, Network Security, Security Strategy, Plan, Budget

Security experts, DHS, lawmakers react to RSA hack

Five days after RSA announced that its systems were breached by a sophisticated attack, details remain scant about how customers of its SecurID two-factor authentication products may be affected.

Still, that hasn't stopped many in the security community from speculating.

Here are latest details emerging:

  • The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has joined the investigation into the compromise. "Working with RSA, we are leveraging the technical, investigative and mitigation expertise of U.S. government agencies to address this issue," Amy Kudwa, a DHS spokeswoman, told "We take threats to our cyber infrastructure as seriously as we take threats to our conventional, physical infrastructure. DHS is also in the process of distributing similar information to our critical infrastructure partners."

    • Federal lawmakers also are weighing in. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement that the "need to pass comprehensive cybersecurity legislation is more urgent than ever" following disclosure of the breach. She said Congress needs to mandate how private and public sector players collaborate to deter attacks.

    • Steven Bellovin, a computer science professor at Columbia University in New York, offered a technical analysis of the breach. He provided a number of customer-impact scenarios, but suggested the biggest risk might be that the hackers gained access to the source code of RSA's back-end systems, used to deploy tokens to organizations. "There's a lot of code needed for maintaining databases, adding and deleting users, making backups, synchronizing master and secondary copies of databases and more," Bellovin wrote. "An attacker who could penetrate these administrative systems doesn't have to worry about key generation or cryptanalysis; they could simply steal existing keys or insert new ones of their own."

    • Adam Shostack, author of "The New School of Information Security," blogged Monday that attackers may be after more than the "seeds," used to generate valid, unique SecurID six-digit token values. The thieves may also have gotten their hands on customer lists, which would enable them to target specific organizations. "My opinion is that social engineers using the contacts database in some way is more likely than a cryptanalytic attack, and a cryptanalytic attack is more likely than a compromise of a secrets database," he wrote. "But we don't know. Speculating like mad isn't helping."

    • Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer at BT Global Services, opined that because the SecurID tokens have no "upgrade path," RSA stands to lose business from customers opting for a competitor's product. But it is unclear whether users can expect to see targeted or far-reaching attacks. "One, [the culprits] are a sophisticated organization who want the information for a specific purpose," Schneier wrote. "The attackers [in this case] actually are on RSA's side in the public-relations spin, and we're unlikely to see widespread use of this information. Or two, they stole the stuff for conventional criminal purposes and will sell it. In that case, we're likely to know pretty quickly."

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