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The 15 worst data security breaches of the 21st Century

Taylor Armerding | Feb. 17, 2012
Data security breaches happen daily in too many places at once to keep count.

4. RSA Security

Date: March 2011

Impact: Possibly 40 million employee records stolen.

The impact of the cyber attack that stole information on the company's SecurID authentication tokens is still being debated. The company said two separate hacker groups worked in collaboration with a foreign government to launch a series of spear phishing attacks against RSA employees, posing as people the employees trusted, to penetrate the company's network. EMC reported last July that it had spent at least $66 million on remediation. But according to RSA executives, no customers' networks were breached. John Linkous, vice president, chief security and compliance officer of eIQnetworks, Inc. doesn't buy it. "RSA didn't help the matter by initially being vague about both the attack vector, and (more importantly) the data that was stolen," he says. "It was only a matter of time before subsequent attacks on Lockheed-Martin, L3, and others occurred, all of which are believed to be partially enabled by the RSA breach." Beyond that, Linkous says, is the psychological damage. "The breach of RSA was utterly massive not only from a potential tactical damage perspective, but also in terms of the abject fear that it drove into every CIO who lost the warm-and-fuzzy feeling that the integrity of his or her enterprise authentication model was intact. Among the lessons, he says, are that even good security companies like RSA are not immune to being hacked. Finally, "human beings are, indeed, the weakest link in the chain," Linkous says.

5. Stuxnet

Date: Sometime in 2010, but origins date to 2007

Impact: Meant to attack Iran's nuclear power program, but will also serve as a template for real-world intrusion and service disruption of power grids, water supplies or public transportation systems.

The immediate effects of Stuxnet were minimal -- at least in this country -- but eIQnetworks' John Linkous ranks it among the top large-scale breaches because, "it was the first that bridged the virtual and real worlds. When a piece of code can have a tangible effect on a nation, city or person, then we've truly arrived in a strange, new world," he says. Linkous says Stuxnet is proof that nation-states, "are definitely actors -- both attackers and victims -- in the cyberwarfare game." He adds that the more that electro-mechanical industrial and energy systems migrate to larger networks -- particularly the Internet -- "the more we're going to see these real-world intrusions."

6. Department of Veterans Affairs

Date: May 2006

Impact: An unencrypted national database with names, Social Security numbers, dates of births, and some disability ratings for 26.5 million veterans, active-duty military personnel and spouses was stolen.

 

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