With four months to go in 2008, the number of data breaches on the Identity Theft Resource Center's 2008 breach list has already surpassed the 446 breaches reported by the organization for all of 2007.
As of the morning of Aug. 22, the number of data breaches reported had reached 449.
As to whether things are getting worse, ITRC founder Linda Foley is cautious. "This is a little frightening, knowing that we're four months ahead of last year," she said.
However, Foley also noted that her organization and others are finding out about more breaches now than they did in the past. Rather than indicating a deteriorating security situation, the rising number of reported data breaches may just mean corporate security auditors are better at finding compromised systems, she suggested.
The Identity Theft Resource Center points out that the actual number of breaches this year is probably higher than 449 so far because of underreporting and because breaches affecting multiple businesses tend to be reported as a single event. According to the ITRC, in 40% of breach events, the number of records affected is not reported or fully disclosed.
In June, following the release of a Verizon Business Security survey about data breaches, Bryan Sartin, VP of investigative response at Verizon, told InformationWeek that publicly reported breaches are "just the tip of iceberg." He said that less than 5% of the more than 500 cases covered in the Verizon study involved some form of disclosure.
(Foley observed that Verizon's study does not distinguish between breaches involving personal information, which can be used for identity theft, and breaches involving proprietary corporate data, which many not affect consumers.)
In any event, it appears that hard numbers about data breaches are hard to come by. According to survey of about 300 attendees at this year's RSA Conference, more than 89% of security incidents went unreported in 2007.
Security incidents, as defined by the RSA study, represent "an unexpected activity that brought sudden risk to the organization and took one or more security personnel to address." Clearly not all "security incidents" are data breaches, but certainly some underreporting of breaches is going on.
In addition to the underreporting of breaches, assessing the actual impact of a breach may be difficult because there's disagreement about the number of data records involved. On Monday, for example, Glasgow's The Sunday Herald reported that Best Western's reservation system had been hacked and 8 million customer records had been stolen. Best Western disputes The Sunday Herald's story, saying that only 13 customer records appear to have been compromised.
InformationWeek also recently published its 2008 Security Survey entitled "We're Spending More, But Data's No Safer Than Last Year." Download the report here (registration required).
In short, numbers may be fuzzy. But those following the issue nonetheless believe action is warranted.
"The number of attacks, in addition to publicly disclosed breaches, continues to escalate as criminal networks mushroom around the world, while economies weaken," said Avivah Litan, a VP at Gartner in a statement. "A more concerted effort is required among companies to secure and protect customer data, regardless of regulatory oversight."
Foley is hopefully that before too long, more complete data about data breaches will lead to a better understanding of such incidents. Her goal, she said, is not to point fingers but to help organizations devise better data security regimes.