Are we suffering from breach notification fatigue?

May 3, 2011 by bkrenek

It seems as though every day the news headlines trumpet another high-profile data breach.  The most recent marquee breach is courtesy of a Sony PlayStation Network hacker, whose attack on the Sony and Qriocity servers between April 17th and 19th have compromised the personal data and, possibly, stored credit card information of 77 million players.  (Yes, you read that right; 77 million.)  Combine that with other recent cyber-heists affecting millions of unsuspecting consumers or residents, and many organizations have been forced to send out a dizzying array of email notifications to their customer base, many – if not all – of whom are now vulnerable to spear-phishing attacks.

With numerous different breaches affecting so many people as of late, millions of consumers are receiving emails from trusted brands noting that customer emails (and perhaps other information) have been compromised, so consumers should be wary of future emails that may appear to be sent from them…like the one they’re reading now.

Got that?

This begs the question of whether customers are starting to tune out to the onslaught of breach alerts flooding their email in-boxes.

Some security gurus believe that notifications aren’t effective and customers become numb to these alerts.  Others are convinced that breach information overload is a good thing, educating people to the dangers lurking in the cybershadows and their vulnerability to identity thieves.  After all, how do you know to watch out for email “bait” if you’re not aware there’s a phishing hook with your name on it?

Furthermore, the flip side of over-notification is under-notification.  This is something that Sony is now being accused of in a lawsuit that claims the company waited too long to notify its PlayStation customers of the recent breach, which only exacerbated customer vulnerability to credit card fraud.

The irony is that while the dramatic breaches of late have been stealing headlines (as well as data), a 2011 Data Breaches Investigations Report by Verizon indicates that total thefts from data breaches have in fact declined significantly over the past few years.  The total number of records actually compromised from these breaches was a “mere” 4 million in 2010, quite a drop from the 144 million records compromised in 2009, and the 361 million compromised records in 2008.  The bad news?  If you look at actual data breaches versus compromised records, the numbers this year are up; 760 breaches last year, an increase from 141 in 2009.

The bottom line: while fraudsters haven’t been able to recently score as much cyber-loot as in times past, this is no time to relax.  Just be aware that with the steep increase in breaches comes an equally steep increase in breach notifications, and the associated risk that breach notification fatigue will put your customers to sleep.