Know Your Enemy

Retailers of all sizes need to intensify their data security protections, but different kinds of threats merit different kinds of defenses.

With all of the PCI and data breach talk these days, it's easy for retailers of all sizes to be on edge. Although it's undeniable that merchants and all sizes need to protect themselves, different issues threaten Wal-Mart and Phil's Bait Shop.

Larger retailers can be seen as the better targets in the Willy Sutton School Of Thought (when asked why he robbed banks, the legendary holdup man is said to have replied, "That's where the money is"). But smaller merchants can be attractive for the opposite reason, namely that they are likely to have less sophisticated defenses.

The term cyber thief today actually describes bad guys in three very distinct groups:

The Professional Cyberthief, typified by the Eastern European folk. They do this for a living, have top-notch equipment and a healthy number of people. They want soft targets and big ones. For these folk, stealing 100,000 data-packages is worthless because they know how many will be nullified quickly. They want to grab tens of millions of packages at a time so they can still end up with a healthy number of usable ones. Hence, they only go after the biggest of the retailers. Mom-and-pops have virtually nothing to fear from these folk.

The amateur cyberthief, typified by the suburban teen-age male. Although they?ll enjoy the money, they?re in it for the thrill, for the sport of it. So they want hard targets. The bigger the challenge, the more the fun.

This is why smart retail CIOs never want to discuss their own security, even in vague terms. If they say they have some holes to fix, it's blood-in-the-water to the Eastern Euro sharks. If they instead say they're airtight, it's the red cape for the suburban teen-age bull. Choose your poison.

These amateurs typically target high-profile places (Pentagon, Wal-Mart, Disney, Google, etc.) because they want the publicity. Sometimes, though, these HREF hoodlums will target a very local retailer that is well-known in their group. Mom-and-pops generally have nothing to fear from these folk, unless it?s a popular hangout. Then it can become a target.

The professional thief, who is not (or at least was not) a cyberthief. This is your crowbar set that often does old-fashioned shop-lifting and burglaries.

A good recent example was a gang that physically attacked POS keypads with the Stop and Shop grocery chain.

The crowbar crew are more worried about security guards and surveillance cameras and usually work in teams, primarily to block or distract. Mom-and-pop retailers have much to fear from these folk. The Wal-Marts of the world have better surveillance systems and are not the crowbar set?s top choice, but they'll go there if it's especially convenient.

The problem with the threat confusion is that security vendors like to group these folk together because that's easier to sell. To paraphrase the hammer-nail clich?, when all you have to sell are high-end deadbolts, you?d better make people think they?re being overrun by crooked locksmiths. The only problem: there are a lot of folk out there with sledgehammers looking for a wall.