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Breaking down Dell's "potential cybersecurity incident" announcement

With numerous regulations and laws like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation putting pressure on enterprises to go public with cybersecurity incidents, we’ve seen a trend of businesses disclosing breaches first and filling in the details later.

Dell provided the latest example of this trend Wednesday, announcing a “potential cybersecurity incident” that it detected earlier in the month. But despite the disclosure, it’s unclear if Dell should be celebrating or preparing for class action lawsuits. Let’s take a closer look at Dell’s notification.

First, there’s the headline — “Dell Announces Potential Cybersecurity Incident” – which is somewhat confusing because according to Dell itself, there most definitely was an incident. The company says “it detected and disrupted unauthorized activity on its network attempting to extract customer information, which was limited to names, email addresses and hashed passwords.” It sounds like Dell thinks there was a potential breach rather than a potential cybersecurity incident.

Regardless, Dell apparently stopped the intrusion before attackers could steal any data, which is good news. But Dell qualified that statement with this portion of the announcement: “Though it is possible some of this information was removed from Dell’s network, our investigations found no conclusive evidence that any was extracted.”

The absence of evidence, however, doesn’t mean the attackers were unsuccessful. We don’t have any idea how long Dell thinks the intrusion lasted – only that it detected the unauthorized activity on Nov. 9. But we do know that the threat actor or actors attempted to extract customer data, and that it was limited to just names, email addresses and hashed passwords – though we don’t know how they were hashed (hopefully not MD5 or a similarly weak algorithm, and hopefully securely salted).

On the positive side, Dell seemed fairly confident about the scope of the intrusion. “Credit card and other sensitive customer information was not targeted,” the company said in its notification. “The incident did not impact any Dell products or services.”

The company added that it had “implemented countermeasures,” including “the hashing of our customers’ passwords and a mandatory password reset.” Password resets are standard operating procedure for any incident, so it’s hard to judge just how severe this potential cybersecurity incident is for Dell based on those reactions. It’s also unclear what Dell means by “hashing the customer passwords.” (Did they rehash them after they were reset? Did they hash them with something different this time around? Did they add salt?)

Nevertheless, it sounds like Dell has contained the issue. The company said it’s investigating the intrusion, hired a third-party firm to conduct a separate, independent investigation, and also engaged law enforcement.

Dell’s announcement raises an important question: is this a cybersecurity win for the company? Based on the information available, Dell was able to detect threat actors on its network and stop them before they successfully extracted any data. That sounds like a win.

However, there are a lot of unknowns that could dampen the positives. We don’t know for sure that no customer data was exfiltrated, we don’t know how long the intrusion lasted, and we don’t know how the threat actors gained the unauthorized access in the first place (if it was, for example, a website flaw that was disclosed a year earlier but never fixed, then that would be bad). The answers to those questions could significantly alter the narrative.

It’s likely we’ll hear more from Dell about this incident down the road. For now, we’ll be left to wonder whether Dell gets to the chalk this up as a win or if it’s yet another negative cybersecurity headline.


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