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Target the victim of a huge security breach, 40 million credit cards stolen

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December 19, 2013

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Target said earlier this morning that hackers have stolen data from some 40 million credit and debit cards of customers who visited its brick-and-mortar stores during the first three weeks of the holiday season in the second-largest such security breach reported by a major U.S. retailer.

Worse-- in terms of the speed at which the hackers were able to access large numbers of credit cards, the data theft was totally unprecedented and never seen before.

The whole thing took place in the nineteen days from the day before Thanksgiving to Sunday, in the heart of the annuel Christmas holiday sales season that is so vital to all major retailers.

Target, the number three retailer in the United States said late Thursday that it was working with federal law enforcement and outside experts to prevent similar attacks in the future. It didn't disclose how its systems were compromised, however.

Experts said the incident couldn't have come at a worse time for Target, which is working to boost sales away from rivals in the last week of the holiday shopping season.

Several complaints from angry customers began to surface on social media as they learned of it early Thursday morning. "Most of these attacks are just a cost of doing business," said Mark Rasch, a former U.S. cyber crimes prosecutor.

"But an attack that's targeted against a major retailer during the peak of the Christmas season is much more than that because it undermines confidence," he added.

The largest security breach against a retailer, uncovered in 2007 at TJX Companies led to the theft of data from more than 90 million credit cards over a span of about 18 months.

Since then, many companies have gotten far more adept at identifying intruders. However, criminals have responded by developing more-powerful attack strategies, spending months on reconnaissance to launch highly sophisticated schemes with the goal of extracting as much data as they can in the shortest period of time.

Investigators believe that hackers compromised software installed on point-of-sales terminals that customers use to swipe magnetic strips on cards when paying for merchandise at Target stores, according to a person familiar with the investigation but not authorized to discuss the matter.

Target warned customers in an alert on its website that the criminals had stolen names, payment card numbers, expiration dates and their corresponding 3-digit security codes at the back.

The company had identified the security breach on Sunday and had begun responding to it the same day, spokeswoman Molly Snyder said.

Krebs on Security, a closely watched security industry blog that broke the news late Wednesday evening, said the breach involved nearly all of Target's 1,797 stores in the United States.

It's not yet clear how the attackers were able to compromise point-of-sales terminals a6t so many Target stores. "It's very clear by now that this is a sophisticated crime, and the timing couldn't have been worse," Snyder said.

The U.S. Secret Service is working on the investigation, according to an agency spokeswoman. A Federal Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman declined to comment.

Unhappy Target customers began to weigh in early on Thursday, posting complaints on Target's Facebook page. "Thank you Target for nearly costing me and my wife our identities, we will never shop or purchase anything in your store again," said one posting.

"Shop at Target, become a target," remarked another. "Gee, thanks." JP Morgan Chase & Co, one of the biggest U.S. credit card issuers, said it was monitoring the accounts involved for suspicious activity and urged customers to contact their bank if they noticed anything unusual.

MasterCard and Visa officials had declined to comment late on Wednesday, after news of the security breach had surfaced. An American Express spokeswoman said the company was aware of the incident and was putting several fraud controls in place.

In other internet security news

A top federal judge said today that he believes the U.S. government's once-secret collection of domestic phone records is unconstitutional, setting up likely appeals and further challenges to the data mining revealed by classified documents leaker Edward Snowden.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said the National Security Agency's bulk collection of metadata-- phone records of the time and numbers called without any disclosure of content violates privacy rights in the United States.

Leon's preliminary ruling favored five plaintiffs challenging the practice, but he limited his decision only to their case.

"I cannot imagine a more indiscriminate and arbitrary invasion of privacy than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval," said Leon, an appointee of President George W. Bush.

"Surely such a program infringes on that degree of privacy that our own Founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment," the judge added.

Leon's ruling said that the "plaintiffs in this case have also shown a strong likelihood of success on the merits of a Fourth Amendment claim," adding "as such, they too have adequately demonstrated irreparable injury."

Leon also noted that the government "does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA's bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitve in nature."

But the judge put off enforcing his order barring the government from collecting the information, pending an appeal by the U.S. government.

The whole issue is highly controversial as both the White House and Congress have spent thousands of hours on this since the Snowden affair broke out in June 2013.

A Justice Department spokesman said Monday that "we believe the program is constitutional as previous judges have found," but said that the ruling is being studied nevertheless.

Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, a strong critic of the NSA data mining, said Leon's ruling showed that "the bulk collection of Americans' phone records conflicts directly with Americans' privacy rights under the U.S. Constitution and has failed to make us safer."

He called on Congress to pass legislation he proposed to "ensure that the NSA focuses on terrorists and spies and not innocent American civilians."

Explosive revelations earlier this year by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, triggered new debate about national security and privacy interests in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and on the Pentagon.

In particular, Snowden's revelations led to more public disclosure about the secretive legal process that sets in motion the U.S. government's surveillance of its own people.

For its part, the NSA did admit that it received secret court approval to collect vast amounts of metadata from telecom giant Verizon and leading internet companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo and Facebook.

The case before Leon involved approval for surveillance in April by a judge at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), a secret government body that handles individual requests for electronic surveillance for "foreign intelligence purposes."

As it is duly required, Verizon Business Network Services promptly turned over the metadata to the government. Leon's ruling comes as the Obama administration completes a review of NSA surveillance in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks.

Sources said that technology company executives would meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday about the issue.

President Obama plans to sit down with Tim Cook of Apple and Eric Schmidt of Google, as well as executives from Microsoft, Facebook, Salesforce, Netflix and other companies.

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up the issue when it denied a separate petition, which was filed by the Electronic Information Privacy Center. Prior lawsuits against the broader NSA program have also been unsuccessful to this date.

Just a few days after the Snowden disclosure in June, some Verizon customers filed legal challenges in the D.C. federal court. The left-leaning ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) also filed a separate, pending suit in New York federal court.

Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of the 1970s, the secret courts were set up to grant certain types of government requests-- wiretapping, data analysis, and other monitoring of possible terrorists and spies operating in the United States.

The Patriot Act that Congress passed after the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil deeply broadened the government's ability to conduct anti-terrorism surveillance in the United States and abroad, eventually including the metadata collection.

In order to collect the information, the U.S. government has to demonstrate that it's "relevant" to an international terrorism investigation.

But the 1978 FISA law lays out exactly what the special court must decide-- "A judge considering a petition to modify or set aside a nondisclosure order may grant such petition only if the judge finds that there is no reason to believe that disclosure may endanger the national security of the United States, interfere with a criminal, counterterrorism, or counterintelligence investigation, interfere with diplomatic relations, or endanger the life or physical safety of any person."

In defending the program, NSA Director General Keith Alexander told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that "15 separate judges of the FISA Court have held on 35 occasions that Section 215 (of the Patriot Act) authorizes the collection of telephony metadata in bulk in support of counterterrorism investigations."

Initially, telecommunications companies such as Verizon, were the targets of legal action against Patriot Act provisions. Congress later gave retroactive immunity to those private businesses.

The revelations of the NSA program and the inner workings of the FISC court came after Snowden leaked documents to the Guardian newspaper. Snowden fled to Hong Kong and then Russia to escape U.S. prosecution.

In other internet security news

Despite all the turmoil and all the negative press in the media this year regarding the Edward Snowden affair, it appears that NSA Director General Keith Alexander and his successor will hold on to the additional role as head of U.S. cyberoperations.

The White House said Friday that a single military official will continue to head up both the U.S. National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command.

"Following a thorough interagency review, President Barack Obama has decided that keeping the positions of NSA Director and Cyber Command Chief together as one, dual-hatted position is the most effective approach to accomplishing both agencies' missions," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.

"Given General Alexander's retirement this spring, it was the natural time to review the existing arrangement," Hayden added.

Overall, military officials were reportedly considering splitting the role and went so far as to draft a list of potential civilian candidates to lead the NSA.

Alexander, who is expected to resign in the spring, has been head of the NSA since 2005, and took on the role of head of Cyber Command in 2010.

The Obama administration said the dual role allows for "rapid response" to cybersecurity threats, and it added that splitting the position would mean instituting elaborate procedures to ensure coordination and avoid duplicate capabilities between the two agencies.

The White House's decision, which is part of a wider review of U.S. surveillance policy, comes just days before a presidential task force was expected to submit new recommendations that "constitute a sweeping overhaul of the NSA," reported The Wall Street Journal earlier Friday, citing "people familiar with the plans."

While the top spot at the NSA has managed to stay intact under increased scrutiny, The Hill reported Friday that NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis, the top civilian at the agency, stepped down this week.

NSA Executive Director Fran Fleisch will now serve as acting deputy director. Inglis had previously said he would be stepping down, and an NSA spokeswoman told The Hill the plan had been "set for some time."

The plan was "first announced internally at the NSA this past summer, for Mr. Inglis to retire at year's end and General Alexander in the spring of 2014," NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said.

"In each case, their time in office represented a significant extension of service beyond their original tours," added Vines.

In other internet security news

By now, you shouldn't be too surprised to learn that the latest release of version 26 of the Firefox web browser now blocks Java software on all websites by default, unless the user has specifically authorized the Java plugin to run from the getgo.

After all, Java security issues have been around from Day One when the language was created by Sun Microsystems about 22 years ago.

The change has been a long time coming. The Mozilla Foundation had originally planned to make click-to-run the default for all versions of the Java plugin beginning with Firefox 24, but decided to delay the change after dismayed users raised a big fuss about it.

Beginning with the version of Firefox that shipped yesterday, whenever the browser encounters a Java applet or a Java Web Start launcher, it first displays a dialog box asking for full authorization before allowing the plugin to launch at all.

Users can also opt to click "Allow and Remember," which adds the current webpage to an internal whitelist so that Java code on it will run automatically in the future, without further human intervention.

Mozilla's move comes after a series of security exploits made the Java plugin one of the most popular vectors for web-based malware attacks over the past few years. In fact, so many zero-day exploits targeting the plugin have been discovered that the Firefox developers have opted to give all versions of Java the cold shoulder, including the most recent one.

Mozilla plans to activate click-to-run for all plugins by default, although the Adobe Flash Player plugin has been given a pass so far, owing to the prevalence of Flash content on the web, but Adobe's software is also screened closely, as its products have also been vulnerable a lot to security attacks in the past few years.

In addition to the changes to the default Java plugin behavior, Firefox 26 includes a number of security patches, bug fixes and minor new features.

The official release notes are available on Firefox's website. As usual, current Firefox installations can be upgraded to version 26 using the internal update mechanism, and installers for the latest release are available from the Firefox homepage.

In other internet security news

Enthusiastic users of the CyanogenMod alternative Android firmware gained additional security yesterday, thanks to the integration of Open Whisper Systems' TextSecure protocol. This is still very new for now, but it bodes well for the near-term future of the technology.

Founded by internet security researchers Moxie Marlinspike and Stuart Anderson, Open Whisper Systems develops security software that can encrypt voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone calls and SMS/MMS messages, so the technology is far-reaching in today's business world.

Android device owners can install the company's TextSecure SMS security software by downloading it from the Google Play store. However, the company announced yesterday that the CyanogenMod project is also shipping the technology integrated into its firmwares by default, beginning with current nightly builds of version 10.2.

With TextSecure as part of the default CyanogenMod SMS software, users can choose any SMS application they want and enjoy secure messaging to other TextSecure-enabled devices automatically, whether they are running the software on Android or iOS.

"If an outgoing SMS message is addressed to another CyanogenMod or TextSecure user, it will be transparently encrypted and sent over the data channel as a push message to the receiving device," Marlinspike explained in a blog post.

"That device will then decrypt the message and deliver it to the system as a normal incoming SMS," he added.

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Source: Target Corp.

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