In the D.A.N.G.E.R. Report, compiled for NAR by Stefan Swanepoel, a “security breach” is listed as a “high risk” for MLSs, though it is quite clear that the risk is to the industry more generally. According to Stefan, “Cyber criminals could attack the industry, breach the MLS, and cause disruption … as transaction management systems and mortgage systems are added or integrated, this threat becomes more serious.”
Only some leaders in our industry are taking this risk – and their responsibility – seriously. Everyone knows how important installing security updates (“patching” or “upgrading”) is, but between 28% and 46%, depending on industry segment, don’t take even that basic, no-cost step for their web servers, even though their organization’s websites are often a gateway for services for many stakeholders. Following is a chart of different industry segments, showing what percent were running unpatched servers with known vulnerabilities as of January 2015:
We’ve got to do better than that. So, where does the industry need to focus its attention?
Security risk assessment is the first step. Clareity Consulting has been helping clients with security risk assessments for the last thirteen years. Organizational security is not something executives should just be handing off to their technical staff, since many of the most important and foundational areas of security are non-technical. Vetting new staff and training them in how to deal with data securely is critical. Writing good policy and procedure documents makes it clear to employees, including both technical and non-technical employees, what their responsibilities are in securely operating your business. Detailed contracts extend these responsibilities to those who provide you with services, and to independent contractors. Also, physical security is extremely important – everything from making sure access is granted only to authorized people to making sure that sensitive information is handled properly and disposed of both timely and securely. Areas of more technical evaluation include routers and firewalls, wireless devices, virtualization environments, websites and applications, installed software, use of encryption, server and workstation operating systems, mobile device configurations, printers, copiers, and much more.
Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard (DSS) compliance is also necessary in order for your business to process credit card information. The latest Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) now require compliance from organizations whose websites redirect their e-commerce transaction-processing functions to a third party, even though these organizations are outsourcing their credit card functions to that third party.
Having an in-depth knowledge of how information flows in our industry as well as both the business and technical aspects of electronic transactions enables Clareity Consulting to help organizations with this kind of risk assessment most efficiently.
The D.A.N.G.E.R. Report focuses on login authentication applied to MLSs and integrated systems such as transaction management and document management. Of course, only weak authentication is in place for broker systems that are also integrated with such systems, and for the direct logins to those systems. Only about half the industry has implemented strong authentication for the MLS and integrated products and, in some cases, even those that have implemented strong authentication for the MLS have not required that all licensed and/or integrated software integrate the stronger measures.
Our industry has a complicated authentication problem to solve. Most login security solutions are not designed to work when the users actively wish to share their account. When mobile professionals have unusual computer use patterns and share computers in a “bullpen” situation, it is even more difficult to provide an effective security system. Even when an MLS has extensive fines for account sharing, we have found that subscribers are quite willing to try to share their login account with non-subscribing professionals, consumers, and others. Most MLSs prefer an authentication solution that focuses on stopping long-term account sharing to one that may cause some inconvenience to users but more reliably prevents an unauthorized user from using account information to access an account even once.
Clareity Security, the leading provider of strong authentication to the industry, has an amazing array of technology that can be used to provide more proactive security, including an exciting new biometric method for mobile devices that is patent pending. Even the current technology Clareity Security has in place at MLSs can be configured to be more stringent, but the industry has to have the will to implement it in that way. Hopefully the industry will move in that direction before there is a publicized security breach.
Clareity Security has always recognized the need to balance cost and convenience with security. That is why Clareity Security has built a RISK based scoring system that has been fully customized to real estate use cases, ensuring that when strong authentication is necessary based on risky behavior and/or application sensitivity, it can be implemented.
Clareity Security also leads the industry in the best practice implementation of secure single sign-on (SSO). Using the SAML (Secure Assertion Markup Language) standard, the company has provided a way for hundreds of applications to be SSO integrated while still maintaining good security. I have also seen some very bad implementations of SSO that create tremendous risk for the organization because they have little to no security.
There are new, emerging authentication challenges as well. For example, it is very difficult to protect authentication to APIs, especially those that are designed to be used by mobile applications. This is an issue that I presented at a RESO meeting in 2013 and, to date, only limited protective mechanisms have been developed by some vendors.
Though consumers are providing their agents with information solely for the purpose of marketing their property for sale, it’s very difficult to ensure real estate information is being used for only that legitimate purpose, since our industry sends the content to so many locations online. One of the biggest challenges is “screen scraping”, when someone copies large amounts of data from a web site – manually or with a script or program. There are two kinds of scraping, “legitimate scraping” such as search engine robots that index the web, and “malicious scraping” where someone engages in systematic theft of intellectual property in the form of data accessible on a website. Malicious scraping has been a severe problem in the real estate industry for a decade or more. Bad actors and their software “bots” can grab MLS data and resell it or use it for their own purposes. The very largest sites, such as Realtor.com, have invested millions in anti-scraping solutions, and these solutions have to be constantly updated as scrapers become ever more sophisticated. However, as some sites take steps to protect the content, that pushes the scrapers out to harvest content from other sites that are less well protected. For our industry, Clareity Consulting recommends a company it has worked with (and is currently consulting for), Distil Networks, that provides a robust and scalable technology solution at a cost that even an individual agent can afford for their site. Distil Network’s solution has so far been adopted by one MLS vendor, some IDX vendors, and some individual VOW sites. While some advertising portals have implemented anti-scraping measures as well, the industry has a long way to go to protect its content both in the MLS system and its public facing modules (client collaboration, framed IDX) and many of the other locations to which content has been syndicated.
Information security is not something where one can “set it and forget it”. New challenges emerge regularly. The policies and procedures, contract terms, and even the security audit tools I used even five years ago have changed radically – they are always changing. We’ve got to get both authentication and screen scraping under control. If you’re an executive in this industry, whether of an association, MLS, broker, or software provider, it’s time to move faster and press harder on security. Start with assessment. I can help with that. Then we can figure out the next steps for your organization. Just remember, security isn’t something you achieve: it’s an ongoing practice.
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