Personal data of hundreds of millions of people was reportedly exposed. (Image: Shutterstock)

Global hotel chain Marriott International announced a security breach compromised the personal data of 500 million guests staying at Starwood properties dating back to 2014.

The Bethesda, Maryland-based chain, which operates more than 6,700 properties globally, said in a statement it has taken measures to investigate and address a data security incident involving the Starwood database.

“On September 8, 2018, Marriott received an alert from an internal security tool regarding an attempt to access the Starwood guest reservation database in the United States. Marriott quickly engaged leading security experts to help determine what occurred. Marriott learned during the investigation that there had been unauthorized access to the Starwood network since 2014.”

The company said it had not finished identifying duplicate information in the database, but believes it contains information on up to approximately 500 million guests who made a Starwood property reservation.

For approximately 327 million of these guests the information included some combination of name, mailing address, phone number, email address, passport number, Starwood Preferred Guest account information, date of birth, gender, arrival and departure information, reservation date, and communication preferences. “That is basically the entire population of the USA,” Rebecca Herold, president of SIMBUS and CEO of The Privacy Professor, noted.

For some, the data also included payment card numbers and expiration dates, but the payment card numbers were encrypted using Advanced Encryption Standard encryption. “There are two components needed to decrypt the payment card numbers, and at this point, Marriott has not been able to rule out the possibility that both were taken,” the notification read.

Reactions to the news from cybersecurity experts came swiftly.

Pravin Kothari, CEO of CipherCloud, said, “The Marriott data breach may be one of the largest in history, only exceeded by the Yahoo data breach in December of 2016, which purportedly lost approximately 1 billion records.” Other than the sheer number of records compromised, Kothari noted this breach stands out even more because of the dwelling time by the attacker within Marriott’s networks. “The illegal access has been active since 2014! This is all too often the case with most large-scale breaches – even current industry averages within the U.S. of about 100 days are way too long.”

In addition, Kothari maintained the data encryption keys were stored alongside the data and then both were then accessed by the criminals. “If true, this literally provided the thieves with the keys to the kingdom.”

John Buzzard, industry fraud specialist, CO-OP Financial Services, held, “This latest loyalty program breach is one in a succession of many, like MyFitnessPal and Panera among others. The egregious part of this Marriot situation is the undetected length – roughly four years – and the aggregation of 500 million consumers’ information.” Buzzard also mentioned, “To me this represents information as low hanging fruit. Hackers tap into anything that nets useable information that can be resold over and over again, and they will leave their malware embedded for as long as it’s safe to harvest the information.”

The effect on the victims is much greater than the numbers reveal, John Gunn, chief marketing officer with OneSpan, said. “It is remarkably easy to request a replacement credit card from your financial institution and you are not responsible for fraudulent activities – try that with your passport.” Gunn warned, “This may be an emerging trend with hacking organizations, to target large pools of passport data. Stolen passports sell for a magnitude more that stolen credit cards on the dark web.”

Bill Evans, vice president of Marketing at One Identity looked at the breach similarly. “While a breach of any information of even a single individual is bad, there are levels of severity regarding the types of personal information that is hacked.” Evans added because credit card information and even passport information may have been compromised this is a much more challenging situation for Marriott and its guests. “You can’t just call the government and say, ‘Deactivate my current passport and send me another.’

“The hospitality sector has been hit hard this year with breaches at such hotels as the Prince, Radisson, and Intercontinental to name a few. Unfortunately, this breach was going on since 2014 which means that cyberhackers secured a treasure trove of personal information,” Ryan Wilk, vice president of customer success for NuData Security, a Mastercard company, said. He added, this news needs to remind merchants and other companies transacting online that their systems are never entirely safe from breaches.”

Herold asked “How did no one catch this huge security vulnerability in 5 years? There should be monitoring of such sensitive files that is occurring on an ongoing basis. This is a simple de facto security activity that every organization should be taking.”

She pointed out. “There is a very wide range of ways that crooks can use this vast array of different types of personal data.” Such as Identity theft and fraud, phishing, creating fake social media and other types of online accounts, and physical crime. “The possibilities for what can be done with all this data is really unlimited. It goes far beyond simply impacting credit reports and having your credit card used by others”.

Herold recommended credit unions should consider sending their members a message about this huge breach and advise that they replace their credit cards with new ones, which will replace those credit card numbers that may be available elsewhere and associated with the individual.

Marriott said it will provide free of charge online account monitoring software, WebWatcher, to guests for one year.

However, Travis Jarae, CEO of OWI, said the most significant effects from the breach are likely to have already occurred. “Post-breach monitoring services such as WebWatcher may do more harm than good by offering consumers a false sense of security. No monitoring service, no matter how robust, can offer consumers complete protection from the consequences of a data breach.”