Hannaford Bros. disclosed that the intruders who stole up to 4.2 million credit and debit card numbers from the grocer's systems did so by planting malware programs on servers at each of its US grocery chain stores stores in New England, New York and Florida.
The malicious software was used to intercept the payment card data as the information was being transmitted from Hannaford's point-of-sale systems to authorize transactions, the company said in a letter sent to officials last week. The malware then forwarded the stolen card numbers as well as their expiration dates to an overseas destination, according to the letter, which was signed by Emily Dickinson, Hannaford's general counsel.
The discovery of the mass malware installation prompted a wholesale replacement of Hannaford's store servers. Dickinson's letter said that with help from the US Secret Service and IT security vendors, the company has identified and replaced all of the affected hardware "and otherwise ensured that no versions of the malware remain anywhere on the company's systems."
The letter offered no explanation as to how the perpetrators might have gained access to each of the company's servers in order to plant the malicious code on them. Echoing separate comments by Hannaford officials, Dickinson wrote that the grocer was certified both last year and on February 27 as being compliant with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard, or PCI.
The Hannaford compromise, which the company disclosed on March 17, is among the first large-scale intrusions involving the interception of card data while it's in transit between systems, said Mike Paquette, chief strategy officer at Top Layer Networks, a vendor of intrusion prevention systems in the US. Most of the compromises reported thus far have involved information stored in databases on systems or in storage devices, Paquette said.
Based on the information available so far, the initial intrusion into Hannaford's systems could have happened in several ways, Paquette added. One likely scenario, he said, is that the attackers took advantage of an undetected remotely exploitable vulnerability in one of the company's servers to gain a foothold on its network and then planted the malicious code on all of the store servers.
It's also possible that the perpetrators were able to break into Hannaford's servers because of overly permissive firewall rules or because the grocer's antivirus software failed, said Chris Andrew, vice president of security technology at software vendor Lumension Security.
Another possibility, Andrew said, is that someone -- even an insider -- could have had physical access to a server and planted the malicious code on it, then replicated the malware across the entire Hannaford environment. Many retailers use a standard software image on all of their servers, he said -- so if one system has a security weakness, it's likely that the others would as well.
Paquette said that once the malware was on the servers, it could have used one of several methods to conceal its presence and surreptitiously send the intercepted card data to a remote system. "The command and control techniques that are used [by attackers] can be quite stealthy and would appear completely normal" to any monitoring technologies that Hannaford might have been using, he said.
But Andrew said that the grocer's network obviously wasn't locked down tight. "Clearly, there was a pathway back out of the network that Hannaford should have closed," he noted.