The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (“UWM”) announced on Wednesday that a malware-infected, university server was discovered on May 25th that allowed hackers, apparently seeking research data, to access several types of scanned documents. Included in the potentially accessed documents were student applications from past and present students, which applications contained Social Security numbers.

At this time, UWM has not been able to confirm that any of the documents were actually taken by the hackers. UWM reports that “[t]he university learned of the installation of malware on May 25, and immediately shut down the system and began to investigate. During the course of the investigation, on June 30, 2011, we discovered that the database containing social security numbers was included in the compromised system.”

UWM wants to assure students that although names and Social Security numbers were possibly taken, the potentially accessed documents did not contain any financial data or academic information such as student grades. At least students don’t have to worry about having embarrassing grades posted.

The announcement asks “[s]houldn’t the university be offering free credit monitoring?” After all, free credit monitoring is expected these days, although certainly no required. The response? “We have no evidence that anyone’s personal information was retrieved or that any information was misused. However, it is recommended that everyone should monitor their financial information by:

  • Reviewing bank and credit card statements regularly, and looking for unusual or suspicious activities.
  • Contacting appropriate financial institutions immediately upon noticing any irregularity in a credit report or account.
  • Request a free credit report and carefully inspect your own credit scores.

That is one approach, I suppose.  It is certainly different.

While the details of the investigation by this public institution remains under wraps, it does raise interesting questions. To be clear, there may be excellent bases for not making the disclosure earlier. However, we have seen more and more experts commenting on how huge delays in public announcements are justified. Sure, delays in notification can sometimes be justified where only an intrusion is known and it is unclear whether personal information is accessible through that intrusion.

We have come to the point where using the “ongoing internal investigation” excuse is habitually abused. In this case, based on facts known, it took 35 days for a “national computer security consultant” to determine the source and extent of the breach. In other words, it took experts 35 day to conclude that if a certain port on a server was exposed, then access to a certain, non-encrypted database was possible. I asked our network guys about this, and they said it should take about 30 minutes to determine what was exposed if a port was left open.

After confirmation of the possibility that the sensitive documents could have been accessed, it too another 41 days to make a public announcement.

Okay, so maybe law enforcement delayed the notification. Certainly possible. These comments are not meant to be an indictment of UWM specifically, but of the new approach to data breach notification that is occurring more often than not.

In the cases where delay notification is grossly delayed, it is more often that company executives and their counsel decide that if the breach was announced, and it was later determined that access to the potentially accessed documents did not occur, then the “bad press” would be worse than delaying notification for 77 days.  Stated another way, they don't want to unnecessarily worry potentially affected persons.

Again, we do not know all the facts. In all likelihood the sensitive documents were not accessed.  However, more and more we all are seeing HUGE delays in notifying those affected. If I received a breach notification 77 days after discovery I would be mad as hell. That is 77 days when identity theft could have occurred and I was not being vigilant because I was unaware of a breach. This is the exploding Pinto approach to data breaches.