By Tanzeer Hossain

In September 2017, Equifax, one of the largest credit reporting agencies, fell prey to one of the best documented data breaches of late. This breach involved compromising the critical information of approximately 147 million individuals, the vast majority being Americans, with a smaller number in the United Kingdom and Canada. This made it one of the largest and most damaging breaches of sensitive data.

This breach was a result of several attack techniques. It included a combination of a technical vulnerability and exploiting a human error. The attackers found a vulnerability within Apache Struts, an open-source framework that Equifax used for web applications. Human error came into play when Equifax failed to apply the patch to their Struts framework and the technical vulnerability left open a window of opportunity for hackers to penetrate their systems and carry out malicious acts.

Using this vulnerability within the framework, hackers gained access to Equifax’s systems and began exfiltrating vast amounts of sensitive information. This includes names, social security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and in some cases, even banking details. This breach exposed their customers to identity theft, fraud and other forms of financial harm via the stolen data.

The backlash from the data breach was far-reaching and severe. Alongside the immediate reputational and financial damage suffered by Equifax, the breach created a massive amount of doubt in the public’s trust in the security of personal data held by Equifax, along with other credit reporting agencies. Equifax has faced many lawsuits, regulatory fines, and heavy costs to repair the damage done during the fallout. Their method of handling the incident ended up making matters worse, as it included delays in notifying those affected and what responses they did give we not seen to be satisfactory.  This sparked public outrage, which further damaged the company’s reputation.

Equifax’s recovery process has been long and a costly one. In addition to their significant investment in enhancing their cybersecurity measures, Equifax must comply with new legal and regulatory obligations following the breach. They have also faced severe pressure to allow more transparency about the data they hold, and about the measures they’ve taken to ensure its protection. Examples of this include extensive cyber security training and more frequent audits.

The Equifax data breach stands as a stark warning for both businesses and consumers, highlighting the critical need for proactive measures in safeguarding personal data. It emphasizes the importance of holding organizations accountable for their data protection practices. By drawing lessons from the failures evident in the Equifax breach and adopting robust cybersecurity strategies, organizations can enhance the security of sensitive information and reduce the likelihood of future breaches.

 In response to the breach, numerous companies reevaluated and upgraded their cybersecurity measures. Bank of America strengthened its cybersecurity protocols, JPMorgan Chase enhanced its defenses and incident response capabilities, and Wells Fargo focused on better encryption and employee training to protect customer data. Experian proactively fortified its cybersecurity infrastructure to restore customer confidence, while Microsoft improved the security features of its products and services. IBM also contributed by offering expertise to help organizations bolster their defenses against cyber threats.

The Equifax data breach is a landmark event in cybersecurity history. It revealed critical vulnerabilities, led to significant regulatory reforms, and highlighted the necessity for robust data protection measures. For both businesses and consumers, the breach is a stark reminder of the importance of vigilance, transparency, and accountability in the digital era.