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Monday, April 15, 2024

T-Mobile’s $150 Million Security Plan Isn’t Cutting It

Yesterday, mobile giant T-Mobile said that it suffered a data breach beginning on November 26 that impacts 37 million current customers on both prepaid and postpay accounts. The company said in a US Securities and Exchange Commission filing that a “bad actor” manipulated one of the company's application programming interfaces (APIs) to steal customers' names, email addresses, phone numbers, billing addresses, dates of birth, account numbers, and service plan details. The initial intrusion occurred at the end of November, and T-Mobile discovered the activity on January 5.  

T-Mobile is one of the US's largest mobile carriers and is estimated to have more than 100 million customers. But in the past 10 years, the company has developed a reputation for suffering repeated data breaches alongside other security incidents. The company had a mega breach in 2021, two breaches in 2020, one in 2019, and another in 2018. Most large companies struggle with digital security, and no one is immune to data breaches, but T-Mobile seems to be approaching companies like Yahoo in the pantheon of repeated compromises.

“I'm certainly disappointed to hear that, after as many breaches as they've had, they still haven't been able to shore up their leaky ship,” says Chester Wisniewski, field chief technical officer of applied research at the security firm Sophos. “It is also concerning that the criminals were in T-Mobile's system for more than a month before being discovered. This suggests T-Mobile's defenses do not utilize modern security monitoring and threat hunting teams, as you might expect to find in a large enterprise like a mobile network operator.”

Because of limits on the API (an interface that facilitates communication between two software programs), the attacker did not gain access to Social Security numbers or tax IDs, driver's license data, passwords and PINs, or financial information like payment card data. Such data has been compromised in other recent T-Mobile breaches, though, including one in August 2021. In July 2022, T-Mobile agreed to settle a class action suit about that breach in a deal that included $350 million to customers. At the time, the company also committed to a two-year, $150 million initiative to improve its digital security and data defenses.

T-Mobile, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment from WIRED, wrote in its SEC disclosure that in 2021, “We commenced a substantial multi-year investment working with leading external cybersecurity experts to enhance our cybersecurity capabilities and transform our approach to cybersecurity. We have made substantial progress to date, and protecting our customers’ data remains a top priority.”

It clearly hasn't been enough, given the recent incident, which exposed data for roughly a third of the company's US-based customers. 

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“How many of these does T-Mobile have to have?” wondered Jake Williams, a longtime incident responder and an analyst at the Institute for Applied Network Security. “API security is just starting to be something people are really focusing on, which was a mistake. Detecting API abuse is not easy, especially if the threat actor is moving low and slow. I suspect there's a large number of these in general that simply go undetected. But the bottom line is that T-Mobile's API security clearly needs work. You shouldn't be having mass API abuse for more than six weeks.”

At this point in the saga, customers may be wondering whether it even matters if T-Mobile has more customer data breaches, given that they've already had so many. But every new compromise exposes more people and potentially expands the data that cybercriminals have available to launch phishing attacks and other targeted scams. The information involved in the new breach could be especially useful to attackers for SIM swap attacks, in which they take control of victims' phone numbers and then abuse the access to take over accounts, including by capturing two-factor authentication codes sent over SMS. 

“The information stolen in this breach is ideal for SIM swapping attacks and other forms of identity theft,” Sophos's Wisniewski says. It “should be another reason for T-Mobile customers to lock down their accounts and move away from SMS-based multifactor authentication for banks, cryptocurrency wallets, etc.”

If you're a T-Mobile customer, or just looking to improve your digital security, make sure you're using an authenticator app or hardware token for two-factor on as many accounts as possible. And add a PIN to your wireless account so attackers need that additional authentication mechanism before they can attempt to compromise your SIM card.

On January 6, the US Federal Communication Commission proposed more stringent data-breach reporting criteria for the telecom industry.

“The law requires carriers to protect sensitive consumer information but, given the increase in frequency, sophistication, and scale of data leaks, we must update our rules to protect consumers and strengthen reporting requirements,” FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel wrote. “This new proceeding will take a much-needed, fresh look at our data breach reporting rules to better protect consumers, increase security, and reduce the impact of future breaches.”

At this point, T-Mobile is undoubtedly a big driver of the telecom industry's data-breach Groundhog Day. Of the latest incident, Sophos' Wisniewski  laments, “Another day, another T-Mobile breach.”

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