Two Equifax Leaders Charged with Insider Trading Amid Data Breach Mess

equifax (1).jpgA former software developer for Equifax, Sudhakar Reddy Bonthu, faces insider trading charges related to the company’s massive data breach last year, according to the SEC and federal prosecutors. Allegedly, in August 2017, Bonthu was asked to participate in Project Sparta, which Bonthu’s bosses described as a major project for one of the company’s clients who suffered a major breach that exposed details of over 100 million users.

Unknown to Bonthu at the time, that client was Equifax itself, which a month prior discovered that it was hacked and an intruder stole details for over 145.5 million US and international users. Bonthu was tasked with creating “an online user interface into which users could input information to determine whether they had been impacted by the breach.” According to court documents, he was told that “the project was a high priority for the unnamed company and had a short deadline because the client intended to ‘go live’ on September 6, 2017, with the breach remediation applications designed by Equifax.”

To create the website, which later turned out to be equifaxsecurity2017.com, Bonthu was given test data and was included in mailing lists exchanging information about the still-secret breach. SEC investigators say that Bonthu concluded on his own that the secret client in Project Sparta was in fact Equifax itself.

In an attempt to obstruct his trail he used his wife’s trading account, wherefrom he purchased eighty-six out-of-the-money put option contracts for shares of Equifax common stock with an expiration date of September 15, 2017, and a strike price of $130 per share. Bonthu made this purchase despite the fact that Equifax’s policies expressly prohibit any trading in derivative securities, including put and call options.

By purchasing out-of-the-money put options, Bonthu could make money only if the market price of Equifax stock were to drop below the put option strike price before the contract expired approximately two weeks later, on September 15. If the market price did not so drop, the put options would expire and his investment would be worthless.

On September 8, the price of Equifax common stock closed at $123.23, a drop of $19.49 (nearly 14%) per share from the prior day’s closing price of $142.72. […] As a result of the precipitous drop in Equifax’s share price, Bonthu turned his initial investment of $2,166.11 into $77,333.79 in only six days. In sum, Bonthu’s ill-gotten gains from his trading in Equifax options totaled $75,167.68, a return of more than 3,500% on his initial investment.

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The SEC says Bonthu had never previously traded in Equifax options. Equifax fired Bonthu in March 2018 after he allegedly refused to cooperate on an internal investigation on charges that he violated the company’s insider trading policy. Bonthu has agreed today to a permanent injunction and to return ill-gotten gains plus interest. If the settlement is approved by a judge, this will terminate SEC civil charges.

The equifaxsecurity2017.com website, on which Bonthu worked, has been deemed one of the most poorly put together breach notification sites in recent years, with several issues affecting it.

He is the second Equifax employee charged with insider trading after Equifax’s breach last year. Earlier this March the SEC charged former CIO of Equifax U.S. Information Solutions Jun Ying. Equifax says it tipped off the Department of Justice and the SEC to Ying’s alleged insider trading.

Although Ying wasn’t directly told that Equifax had been breached, he was assigned to assist Equifax’s Global Consumer Solutions unit with what was billed as “a business opportunity for an unnamed client,” code-named Project Sparta, according to court documents. The project was designated as “urgent,” and everyone participating, including Ying and his team, were instructed to cancel their Friday evening plans and respond to all requests.

At 5:27 p.m. that day, Ying texted a co-worker that the breach they were working on “sounds bad” and noted: “We may be the one breached. . .. Starting to put 2 and 2 together,” according to the SEC complaint. Later that evening, Ying learned that Equifax’s CSO, chief legal officer and vice president of cybersecurity had all canceled their travel plans, it adds.

The following Monday, around 10 a.m., “Ying used a search engine to find information on the internet concerning the September 2015 cybersecurity breach of Experian, another one of the three major credit bureaus, and the impact that breach had on Experian’s stock price,” according to the complaint. “The search terms used by Ying were: (1) ‘Experian breach’; (2) ‘Experian stock price 9/15/2015’; and (3) ‘Experian breach 2015.’

“This defendant took advantage of his position as Equifax’s USIS chief information officer and allegedly sold over $950,000 worth of stock to profit before the company announced a data breach that impacted over 145 million Americans,” says U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak. “Our office takes the abuse of trust inherent in insider trading very seriously and will prosecute those who seek to profit in this manner. By selling when he did, Ying avoided losses in excess of $117,000.”

Earlier this month, Equifax revised its estimate of the breach’s impact to 147.9 million U.S. consumers. About 15 million U.K. consumers – of which about 860,000 are at risk of identity theft – and 8,000 Canadian consumers also saw their personal information get breached (see Equifax Breach Victims: UK Count Goes Up).

I identified Equifax’s control gaps and conflict of interest in a post shortly after the breach in 2017. I suspected then as I do now that more people will be charged related to conflict of interest with LifeLock identity theft protection.

Information sourced from Tara Siegel Bernard for the New York Times, Allison Prang for the Wall Street Journal, and the associated press. Curated and edited by Jeremy Swenson of Abstract Forward Consulting.

5 Things Equifax Could Have Improved to Prevent Their Data Breach

Equifax_breach_exposes_143_million_peopl_0_4110363_ver1.0_640_360Minneapolis, MN – 11/22/17. The recent Equifax data breach impacted one-third of the U.S. population with more than 143.5 million records exposed.  This epic hack started on 05/13/2017 and lasted until 07/29/2017, all the while the company was clueless.  As a result, the threat actors trolled around Equifax’s network, staging and exfiltrating data undetected for 2.5 months.  It is one of the biggest data breaches in U.S. history but clearly not the biggest.  Going forward, breaches are likely to be bigger, given the threat actors risk vs. reward tradeoff, and the increasing capabilities of cloud computing and botnets thereby enabling anonymity.

Equifax 1Yet this breach may be one of the most negatively impactful because of the comprehensive sensitive data lost in it including social security numbers, full names, addresses, birth dates, and even drivers licenses and credit card numbers for some.  “This information is the kind that several businesses like financial companies, insurance companies, and other security-sensitive businesses use to identify a customer accessing their accounts from online, by phone, or even in person” (Pelisson, Anaele; & Villas-Boas, Antonio, 09/08/17).

Therefore, this breach lends itself perfectly to future identity theft.  To date, hundreds of fraudulent loan applications, credit card charges, student loans, and insurance claims have been documented and it’s not likely to stop anytime soon.  All of this has inspired negligence lawsuits and regulatory reviews across most states.  If there is one thing you would expect from a credit monitoring company claiming to protect the accuracy of your data, it is that they would at least have above average information security standards.  Yet they clearly did not.  Below are the things that went wrong at Equifax to enable and exacerbate the breach:

1) Equifax’s first problem was that they failed to take a recent critical update notice seriously:
NIST (The National Institute of Standards in Technology) via CERT (critical emergency readiness team) issued an update alert for the Apache Struts platform on 03/08/17, CVE (critical vulnerability exploit) 5638 (Fig 2) which Equifax ignored or gave low priority.  Apache Struts is a free, open-source, MVC (model view controller) framework for creating nice, new Java web applications.  At Equifax, the Apache Struts platform was used for multiple applications and thus the risk associated with failing to patch the vulnerably was exponentially large and complex.

Apache Struts
Negatively, the Apache Struts vulnerability allowed remote code execution via a cmd string upload in the HTTP header.  Both versions of this vulnerability were listed as being highly severe by the CVE alert.  There is no way Equifax did not know this to a considerable degree.  Lesson learned: solidify your security baseline and update and patch based on likely impact and ease of execution.

2) Equifax had a history of poor security culture back to 2014 and failed to make key improvements:
“In April 2017, cyber-risk analysis firm Cyence rated the probability of a security breach at Equifax at 50 percent in the next 12 months.  Credit analytics firm FICO gave Equifax low marks on data protection — an enterprise security score around 550 on a scale of 300 to 850.  In 2014, Equifax “left private encryption keys on its server,” potentially allowing hackers to decrypt sensitive data, according to a recent breach related lawsuit.” (Harney, Kenneth; 11/21/2017).  Thus, Equifax had poor security long before the recent breach and they have been warned.

a) Creating a culture of security where rank and title do not suppress valid evidence and reason, and outside vendors are vetted and listened to in a timely order concerning security risks would improve their security posture.  Yet this requires cross-departmental collaboration, openness, and it requires firing those insulating themselves in fiefdoms of “yes sayers”.

3) Executives had more concern for short-term profit than long-term security:
On 08/01/17 and 08/02/17 three top executives from Equifax sold nearly $2 million worth of company stock at a high price but maintain that they had no knowledge of the breach that was discovered by the company on 07/29/17. Allegedly these trades were placed before August 2017. Although these may be innocent well-earned stock trades, the totality of the circumstances warrants further validation even though Equifax’s attorneys reviewed the trades at the time. Trades like these should not just be reviewed by the legal department but also by the P.R. department when a disaster is near, likely, or present. Most importantly, long-term security should be on the mind of executives, not short-term profits – implicates a huge culture issue.

4) They have business products that create conflicts of interest that incent data breaches and identity theft:
This is because Equifax sells credit monitoring services at about $17 per month per customer.  They also partner to sell identity theft monitoring via LifeLock.  LifeLock has a direct copy of most of Equifax’s data so they can accurately monitor for fraud indicators.  LifeLock cost about $30 per month per customer and a part of that profit is shared with Equifax via a prearranged deal inked in 2015.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren described it in the video below.

5) Equifax used stunningly simple PIN numbers that were composed of date
and time:

This was corroborated by Wes Moehlenbruck, MS, CISSP, CEH, CHFI, a California-based senior cybersecurity engineer with a master of science degree in cybersecurity.  He stated, “The PINs used to lock and unlock credit files were simply based on the time and date – nothing more complicated than that.  Absolutely yes, this is a rookie mistake” (Hembree, Diana, 11/15/17).  Obviously, in using such a simplistic approach in PIN generation, a user’s PIN could easily be guessed or brute-forced by testing every possible combination using a computer program.  PINs should be more complex, completely confidential, and there should be a policy mandating that they change often (every six months for example).

If you want to talk more about these and related concepts applied to my consulting and speaking, please contact me here.