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Why you can't afford to ignore latest big data breach

The number of affected users keeps growing, and it's hard to know precisely how much potential damage there is. But the risks of digital carelessness could not be higher.

By Nov 15, 2013 4:09PM

This post comes from Adam Levin at partner site on MSN MoneyIf you’re one of those folks who believed that "it will never happen to me," when it comes to identity theft, the hack of Adobe’s internal database isn’t just bad news -- it’s scary. It is increasingly inevitable that every business will suffer some kind of data breach -- and that each of us will be a victim of identity theft, possibly as a result of one of those breaches. Suddenly, just being careful about your own information is no longer enough to keep yourself safe.

User name field on computer screen © William Andrew, PhotographerIf there is one universal truth about identity theft, it’s that you’ll never know how bad it is until long after you’ve been put in danger (if you ever really know). The Adobe hacking situation illustrates the growing problem with identity theft and how ordinary people are often the real targets of hackers who target big companies.

It all started when Adobe reported the breach of more than 3 million customers’ information (including password-identifying information), then upped the number to 38 million. Last week, it got a whole lot worse when an outside company found the data of some 152 million Adobe customers on a site frequented by cybercriminals. That could mean that the Adobe hack is the largest in history.

But if that wasn’t bad enough -- and make no mistake, it’s bad enough, given how many people commonly reuse passwords across accounts and choose to use unsafe passwords like "password" -- Adobe spokeswoman Heather Edell confirmed to Reuters that "source code to several software titles" was stolen in the breach. So far, Adobe has disclosed only that the hackers took source code for its Cold Fusion (a Web development application) and Acrobat (the program that builds .pdf documents), though it’s been reported that at least Photoshop and Reader were similarly accessed.

Why you should care about stolen source code

The obvious issue for Adobe with the theft of its source code is that their expensive products can now more easily be pirated. But beyond that, as previous hacks have shown, the cybercriminals who slithered away with their source code and their user database can use it to make much more than mere mischief -- especially as almost anyone who uses the Internet likely uses at least one Adobe product.

To understand how this kind source code theft could affect a company’s customers, one need look no further than the challenges faced by RSA, a cybersecurity company whose database was breached in 2011. That breach resulted in the theft of source code related to its SecurID product -- the little electronic tokens that cough up a new passcode every time you try to log into an account. Though RSA announced they caught the cyberintruders in April 2011, it wasn’t until June that they publicly admitted the hackers compromised its source code and replaced millions of tokens for its 25,000 customers.

In the meantime, at least one of RSA’s customers, Lockheed Martin, experienced a breach made possible with the hacked tokens.

It’s worth pointing out that the RSA hack reportedly originated from a problem with Adobe Flash that the hackers exploited after getting an RSA employee to open an infected Microsoft Excel file, and the Adobe hack reportedly used an exploit in its own Cold Fusion program. Finding more exploits like these is just one way that hackers could use the source code to commit even larger crimes and wreak even greater havoc. In the Adobe hack, the bad guys know which programs specific users have, making it even easier to engage in phishing to get people to download malware disguised as updates.

The scope of the attack is still unknown

And despite the risks, Adobe is still being circumspect about what exactly was taken and what problems customers could face from the damage inflicted on the company --  not that Adobe is unique in its circumspect disclosures. Compared with many other companies, Adobe is being enormously transparent. A new ThreatTrack Security survey indicates that as many of six in 10 data breaches that are discovered are not publicly reported.

In this case, Adobe is sending snail mail to users like me (and emails to others) warning that my data might, or might not, have been compromised weeks ago. But, in the meantime, even Facebook has used the hackers’ database to determine which email and password combos apply to their users’ accounts and locked those accounts down until they can be verified.

The truth is that we don’t know exactly what the hackers spirited out of Adobe and what they can do with that data -- and it’s possible that Adobe doesn’t know, either. It’s likely we won’t know much of it for a while, if ever.

Actions to take going forward

So what should you do? Be really careful with what files you open right now, with what links you click and even with what emails you read (if you don’t have pictures blocked). Make sure you have and are running the most up-to-date antivirus software that also scans for malware.

Also, change your passwords -- right now. Don’t use the same password for different accounts, especially for your financial and email accounts. Never use the word "password" or any other word found in the dictionary; those are really easy for hackers’ programs to guess. Instead, in addition to letters, use numbers, symbols and punctuation marks to make your password harder to decipher. For financial accounts and email accounts (which can be used to reset passwords on other accounts), insist on two-factor authentication (a password and another form of identification determined by your email provider).

A data breach like this one can lead to identity theft, which takes a huge toll on your credit. And, obviously, look twice at any email purportedly from Adobe encouraging you to download updates or new versions of the software.

This is an op/ed contribution to and does not necessarily represent the views of the company.

More from

Nov 17, 2013 12:47PM
And don't use your real name online where ever you can get away with a fake one.
Nov 15, 2013 7:12PM

A data breach can only occur if there is actually data there to steal which is why I don't use much of my personal information anymore.  Sadly, many of these companies can't keep their software secure, much less expect end-users to be secure.  How can people put faith in using this software or technology if companies who design it aren't protected?  Unfortunately, all of this technology is out of control, and we need less software packages that do what can be done in other ways anyway.

Nov 18, 2013 11:02AM
What is even more worrysome is that these affected companies do not release this information to the general paying consumer until months after the infiltration of their security systems leaving us most vulnerable. I think companies that hold out on this information shoulkd be held highly accountable for not informing its customers immediatelt so that corrective action can be taken such as immediately changing passwords.
Nov 17, 2013 12:45PM
If you're worried about identity theft, you can freeze your credit so no one can open fake accounts applying for credit with your information. Check out Clark Howard's website.
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