How financial institutions can keep data safer

By Matt Lock, Technical Director at Varonis

Matt Lock
Matt Lock

The financial sector is a prime target for threat actors looking to make money by infiltrating corporate networks to steal data or insider information or install ransomware. Not only could this result in the loss of data, funds and reputation, but it could also land the concerned institution with a large fine from regulators.In 2018 the FCA issued fines totalling more than £60 million, a sizeable proportion of which was due to data breaches.

Unfortunately, many banks and financial institutions are making life easier for those wishing to steal critical information from them simply as a result of poor cyber security practices. This often comes down to how security risks are prioritised within the business,which is the responsibility of the C-suite. They must understand and keep up to date on the latest threats and the tactics cybercriminals use. This will help inform the appropriate allocation of budgets and resources in line with the level of risk.

Reduce exposed data

Some of the biggest risk factors that financial institutions face is unmanaged access to data and storing too much unused and unnecessary data on their networks.

For instance, in one organisation we discovered a payroll file open to the entire company. Even the receptionist on the front desk could easily access confidential payroll files through her account.

This company isn’t alone. Varonis research found that the average organisation operating in the financial industry leaves one in five (21 percent) of its sensitive files and folders exposed.On average, financial institutions had 352,700 unprotected, sensitive files accessible to anyone on the corporate system.

This is a concern for a number of reasons. Firstly, unrestricted access to files means that anyone in an organisation can view and alter files regardless of their job role,whether they genuinely need access or not.For example, should a temporary consultant be able to access and change a client’s personally identifiable information (PII)?As such, if any unauthorised changes are made to a file, or it is leaked outside the organisation, there is little insight as to how this happened or who is responsible.

Secondly, if a threat actor does manage to infiltrate a corporate network, they will have unfettered access to any data that is not restricted. The implication is that hundreds,or even thousands,of files could be quickly and easily stolen before an information security team is even aware there is an unauthorised person on the system.Permissive access can have significant implications if an organisation falls victim to ransomware; if the individual that is compromised has global access rights, all the data that they can access will be encrypted.

To reduce exposure and keep these files and folders safe, financial institutions need to operate a policy of “least privilege”, where employees only have access to the data needed to carry out their roles. Measures for implementing a least privilege approach to information security include: removing global access to data; ensuring that all data has an owner or steward and regularly re-certifying access to reflect role changes or staff leaving.

Automation plays a key role in enforcing least privilege as it can be used to discover those accounts that have access to information they do not need for their job role.

Crack down on overdue passwords

When looking to protect access to data through login details, setting expiry dates for passwords is essential, as this forces users to create new ones on a regular basis. If there is no end date, threat actors have longer to figure out what a particular password is, and it gives them unlimited time once they are in a corporate network.Creating an end date for passwords also means that it is less likely that the credentials of someone who has left the company will still be valid and provide a threat actor with a way into a network. Yet despite the clear benefits, our research found that 38 percent of users had passwords that never expire.

Remove stale data

Another significant issue affecting the security of organisations is data that is out of date, no longer in use or just generally redundant, known as stale data.Holding on to that data unnecessarily simply creates more challenges, not only security risks but also management and storage costs.

Our research discovered that more than half (53 percent) of all data in a company is stale, and nearly nine out of 10 (87 percent) companies have more than 1,000 stale files – seven out of 10 (71 percent) have upward of 5,000.

Financial organisations need to know exactly what data they have on their corporate networks and where it is. This is not only beneficial for security issues, but it can also help improve the overall business. For starters, the less data an organisation has to keep, the less it needs to spend on storage. Then there are Data Subject Access Requests (DSARs), which enable individuals to request any information that a company holds on them and how it is being used. Under the GDPR the timeframe for responding to these requests has been reduced from 40 days to a calendar month and organisations can no longer charge a fee.Financial institutions need to know what and where this information is if they are to have any chance of responding to the DSAR within the time limit.

Regain control

To take back control of their data, financial institutions need to conduct a complete analysis of all the folders and files on their corporate networks down to granular detail. This must highlight data that is stale and enable an organisation to either delete it from the system or archive it. The analysis should also identify who has access to which files and folders to allow permissions to be changed so that they are only accessible to those that need them for their work,based upon the least privilege approach.

Protecting data should the top business priority for the C-suite of financial institutions. Doing so not only protects the integrity of customers’ data but also guards the business from reputational damage, the potential loss of income, and the risks of hefty fines.