February 1, 2019 andrew

What Business Owners Need to Know About Protecting Their Data

False sense of security? Even major apps and platforms can fall victim to security vulnerabilities.

6 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

With the recent rush toward enhancing consumer data protection due to GDPR and other privacy regulations that have taken effect, businesses have strengthened their platforms toward better protecting and securing user data. But is this enough? What do you need to know as a business owner, entrepreneur or manager?

Recent vulnerability reports prove that even major ecommerce and social platforms can easily become an attack vector for cross-site-scripting (or XSS) attacks, and these happen even if the platforms themselves are secure. With vulnerabilities in third-party application providers being used by major customer-facing platforms, there is an increased risk that user data will be exposed to malicious players. This is the risk we all face, unfortunately. 

Data privacy regimes

Perhaps the biggest tech news in 2018 was the enforcement of the European General Data Protection Regulation, which sought to protect European Union citizens’ personal data from being collected and utilized without consent. With the GDPR, any business that handles data on E.U. citizens, or which counts E.U. citizens as among their clients, will need to explicitly inform said users of data gathering efforts, and seek explicit content for doing so.

GDPR has had its impact even outside of Europe since any business that provides services to E.U. citizens or residents will need to comply. In addition, there have been numerous privacy-focused regulations that are also in effect worldwide, given the recent consumer and business focus on data privacy, which are all good things that are working to protect us.

Even with an increased focus toward enhancing privacy, however, there are still a lot of risks involved when it comes to businesses losing user data to malicious hackers. For one, given the collaborative nature of services (e.g., an ecommerce store utilizing a payment processor or a logistics provider), the weakest link here would be the service that can introduce a potential breach. In this regard, the moment a third-party application puts the user at risk, the entire operation could already be compromised.

XSS in a nutshell

In the simplest explanation, XSS attacks are a form of data-injection, wherein malicious client-side code is injected by an attacker into an otherwise legitimate website. This works by injecting code — usually JavaScript — into a website or web app’s output, often working through forms such as search fields, feedback forms, forum text entry fields and even cookies stored on a user’s browser.

When an unsuspecting user accesses an affected website, the injected code has the potential to deliver a payload, which can include executing code, stealing data, controlling a user’s session or installing backdoors to a computer system or network.

Such attacks are borne by the need for today’s websites to be interactive. With the numerous interactions between browser and server over a single session, XSS can even be used to pull content from a third-party website, use existing cookie data (which can include usernames and passwords), or interact directly with an app’s client-side processes.

What platforms have been vulnerable?

A recent DOM-XSS (document object model-XSS) exploit has been found on prominent social networking and ecommerce sites including Tinder, Shopify and Yelp, reports VPN Mentor late in 2018, exposing as many as 685 million users globally to data theft.

Digging deeper into the potential extent of the risk, the security researchers discovered that the XSS vulnerability included money transfer service Western Union and image sharing service Imgur. Other services affected by the vulnerability were Canva, Letgo, Lookout, Fair, Amazon Music, TicketMaster and Reddit, among others.

The weak point is assumed to have originated in Branch.io — a third-party mobile linking platform that unifies user experiences across different devices and channels. The service has an alias subdomain for its partner sites (including the ones listed above), and clicking on links pointing to these subdomains may have rendered users vulnerable to data theft through scripts injected by malicious hackers.

What can businesses and users do?

The company involved has promptly fixed the potential vulnerability after receiving reports of the XSS risk. However, this precludes the possibility that attackers may have discovered the vulnerability and exploited it to steal data. Therefore, this means that users who have recently or regularly used services detailed above like Tinder, need to double check if their accounts are not compromised. Password changes and browser cache/cookie clearing might be a good idea.

For businesses, meanwhile — especially those that run consumer-facing platforms, or even those that utilize websites for employee access — there are several methods to minimize the risks, as explained by ComputerWeekly, associated with XSS. This involves building applications with a tight security development lifecycle. This means constantly building and updating in order to reduce or eliminate security-related errors in design and coding. This also means assuming that all data that is being received by the application can potentially come from an untrusted source, even if it comes from users who are already logged in and authenticated.

As such, some changes that can be adopted for entrepreneurs, business owners and managers can include:

  • Not trusting user input blindly. This means constantly validating the input for type, length, format and data range whenever such data goes across trust boundaries;
  • Reducing client-side input, to preclude the possibility of unwanted code or character sets being passed through;
  • Setting a webpage’s character set to the bare minimum (ISO-8859-1), which is enough for English and most European languages;
  • Asking users to re-authenticate before accessing critical services;
  • Immediately expiring login sessions if access from multiple IP addresses is detected;
  • Utilizing vulnerability scanners to keep track of such risks in real-time;
  • And conducting penetration testing before an application or website goes live.

The takeaway

As XSS attacks have been all over the headlines, it makes sense to focus on preventing security risk, especially in the light of calls for better data privacy and protection. This is important today, given the fact that most sites will not work without client-side scripting.

If this has still gone above your head, make sure to contact your webmaster and have him or her walk you through these important points regarding data protection. Knowing that major social networks and services have actually been at open risk to a big XSS attack, both businesses and users need to be proactive about their security.

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