A cyber analytics firm has discovered several instances of enterprise software that collected and sent information home, a behavior which could lead to exposure of sensitive enterprise data.
While its report does not disclose the name of the software vendors, ExtraHop explains in four case studies how installed software sent out data to external locations without companies’ knowledge.
Even though this transmission of data may not be malicious or a privacy risk by itself because it could only be diagnostic data for all we know, it is important for enterprises to have full control over what data is sent out of their network.
Enterprise software sending data home
Collecting and delivering information from a client’s server is a behavior also known as “phoning data home” which could potentially have legal and regulatory implications especially when the data delivery is being performed without the customer’s knowledge.
In the security advisory published today, ExtraHop defines the phoning home process as “a client-to-server communication” which could prove beneficial for both the third-party vendors and the customers when it’s transparent and well documented.
However, “when customers are unaware of this vendor exfiltration, it risks exposure of sensitive data, such as Personally Identifiable Information (PII), in the vendor’s environment.”
“To be clear, we don’t know why these vendors are phoning home data. The companies are all respected security and IT vendors, and in all likelihood, the phoning home of data was either for a legitimate purpose given their architecture design or the result of a misconfiguration,” adds ExtraHop’s advisory.
“But the fact that large volumes of data are traveling outbound from a customer environment to a vendor without the customer’s knowledge or consent is problematic.”
Software with an appetite for data
ExtraHop’s report showcases four cases unearthed during 2018 and the first weeks of 2019 when enterprise software was observed phoning home data to its own servers without the customers’ permission or prior knowledge.
The software vendor types range from endpoint security and device management to consumer security camera and security analytics, and in all highlighted examples, the clients had no idea that data was being sent from their environment to ones controlled by the software’s vendors.
The enterprise software was observed by ExtraHop while:
This behavior exposed the companies to a wide range of risks such as unauthorized access to data, device management vendor sending data to the cloud, potential vector for malware downloads, potential exposure of PII and violations underGraham-Leach-Bliley, explains ExtraHop’s report.
“What these examples underscore is that it’s very difficult for enterprises to really understand what’s happening with their data,” adds ExtraHop.
“How can you expect to know when a bad actor is exfiltrating data when you don’t know that your trusted vendors are pulling it out of your environment and for what purpose?”
Unauthorized data transmission risks
Since data privacy is a hot subject these days with most countries working on or having already implemented data protection regulations like European Union’s GDPR, exposing sensitive information by having it sent away to a third-party’s environment could attract severe monetary penalties, as well as enterprise clients exposure to identity theft or customer loss caused by reputational damage.
To mitigate these risks, ExtraHop recommends the following measures to detect and block security software from transmitting potentially sensitive data:
“We decided to issue this advisory after seeing a concerning uptick in this kind of undisclosed phoning home by vendors,” also said Jeff Costlow, ExtraHop CISO. “What was most alarming to us was that two of the four cases in the advisory were perpetrated by prominent cybersecurity vendors.”
“These are vendors that enterprises rely on to safeguard their data. We’re urging enterprises to establish better visibility of their networks and their vendors to make sure this kind of security malpractice doesn’t go unchecked.”
ExtraHop’s advisory is designed to make organizations aware that software phoning home their data is not something unusual per se but that it could lead to a lot of headaches in the ‘right’ circumstances when it is conducted without their knowledge.
More information and extra details on the four case studies, including technical details on how the behavior was discovered while analyzing customers’ computing environments, is available in the ExtraHop security advisory.