Don’t Hold the Door Open for Cyber Criminals

Are criminals accessing an open door in your network?

Here in St. Louis, you’re likely to hear people saying they’re heading to Bread Co. for lunch, even if Panera is the sign above the restaurant. That’s because to St. Louisans, Panera will always be Saint Louis Bread Company. But recently, residents were relieved the St. Louis name wasn’t attached to Panera’s recent cyber security blunder.

On April 2, Brian Krebs of security news website KrebsOnSecurity broke the story that customer data from Panera’s loyalty program—including names, email and physical addresses, birthdays, and the last four digits of credit card numbers—was available through an insecure API on their website. Worse yet, Panera had been notified about the defect eight months prior in August 2017 and did nothing to resolve the problem.

Cyber security researcher Dylan Houlihan found the flaw in Panera’s API and, after confirming the extent of the problem, contacted Panera’s cyber security team. He notes that reaching out to Panera was difficult as there was no information available for who to contact if security holes were found. Panera’s response was less than stellar. In Houlihan’s detailed account of their communication, Panera’s director of information security, Mike Gustavison, was suspicious of him, and after receiving proof of the problem, took several days to reply that they would work to resolve it.

Except they didn’t.

Every month, Houlihan checked to see if the flaw was fixed, only to see that customer data was still unprotected. Finally, in April 2018, he contacted Krebs to make the matter public and force Panera to respond. They did. Within two hours Panera claimed they patched the problem.

Except they hadn’t.

Krebs continued to monitor the website and found that, while the information was no longer accessible to the public, if a member logged into their free Panera account, they could still exploit the flaw. He also discovered that it extended to other parts of Panera’s business, such as the catering website.

After the negative media coverage, Panera took down its website and patched the problem properly. In a tweet following the incident, Krebs estimates that up to 37 million accounts could have been made public because of this flaw. While there is no evidence yet that malicious agents accessed the data, this was still a terrible security breach.

How Often Does This Really Happen?

It’s easy to lose the details in light of Panera’s poor response and subsequent inaction, but accidental data breaches from misconfigured hardware or software happen far more often than you might imagine.

  • March 6, 2017: River City Media left more than a billion email accounts exposed to the public, some with personal information. Also exposed were detailed records of their own illegal spamming activities. The problem—no password protection on the backups.
  • June 19, 2017: Deep Root Analytics left millions of Americans’ addresses, birthdays, phone numbers, and political views on a variety of topics open to the public. The problem—misconfigured user permission settings.
  • October 3, 2017: A National Credit Federation cloud storage bucket was found to be open to public access, revealing personal, credit, and financial information of tens of thousands of its customers. The problem—misconfigured user permission settings.
  • October 6, 2017: An Alteryx cloud storage bucket was found to be accessible to anyone with a free Amazon Web Services account. It exposed personal data, Experian marketing data, and US Census data for more than 123 million American households. The problem—misconfigured user permission settings.
  • April 9, 2018: A flaw similar to Panera’s was discovered in P. F. Chang’s rewards website. The problem—an insecure API.
  • April 23, 2018: After rebuilding their website following a ransomware attack, MEDantex’s new customer portal contained abilities intended only for employees, including accessing confidential patient records without authentication. The problem—a bug on the website.
  • May 17, 2018: LocationSmart’s demo feature is found to be able to track the location of almost any cell phone without the user’s consent. The problem—an insecure API.

What Does This Mean for a Small Business Owner?

These examples of private, financial, and personal information leaked unintentionally serve as a warning to all business owners. While there’s a sense of poetic justice that River City Media revealed their own criminal activities by forgetting to add a password, the truth is, not all data you could reveal belongs to other people. You can be a cyber threat to your own business.

Few businesses can run day to day without some amount of personal, customer, or vendor data stored either on their network or in cloud storage. The technicalities of properly configuring security for these electronic databases can be daunting, but even when things appear to be simplified for you, all it takes is one open port, one missing password, or one unsecured application for the door to your data to be left wide open.

This is why it’s vital for businesses to have their systems set up by IT professionals and to perform network security audits routinely to ensure both the hardware and the software are configured correctly. It’s not enough to simply hire an IT consultant once and assume your system is secure. Files get moved, employees are hired, and new hardware is installed—all leaving room for new settings to supersede old ones, or worse, be forgotten all together. A network security audit performed at least annually gives you peace of mind that your cyber doors are tightly closed and locked.

What Should You Do to Protect Your Business?

While it’s crucial to know how to avoid opening the door to criminals, knowing how to respond to a breach is just as important. Here are a few simple steps you can take to avoid or address an accidental data breach.

  1. Hire IT professionals to set up all hardware and software. Your customers trust you to be the expert in your field, so trust the IT professionals to be the experts in theirs. Make sure all your hardware and software have been properly configured from the start.
  2. Perform annual network security audits. Just because you configured everything correctly, doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Your business changes all the time, so it’s best to check the doors and windows before someone else notices they’re open.
  3. Know your hardware. Many business owners don’t realize what’s in their hardware closet. Can you point to your hardware firewall with confidence? Are you certain it’s the correct type for your business? Ask an IT professional to review your hardware with you so you understand what you need and how it works. Doing so will improve your ability to spot potential problems.
  4. Have a way people can contact you about problems they find. One lesson learned from the Panera breach is how important it is that people can contact you with problems they’ve noticed. Many security researchers who find flaws due to misconfiguration just want you to know about the issue so it can be resolved. Make sure they can get in touch. Larger companies should have separate contact information specifically for security issues to keep them from being lost with other routine technical issues customers might have.
  5. Respond quickly to any problems found. Don’t wait eight months or for public embarrassment to sound the alarm before responding to an accidental data breach. If you act swiftly, your data may still be kept safe. In many accidental breaches, the problem was found not by criminals but cyber researchers.

No company wants to find themselves in a situation like Panera’s, so make sure your network security is done right. If you’d like to learn more about configuring your systems or to schedule a network security audit, contact Anderson Technologies by phone at 314.394.3001 or by email at