IT security has been one of the hottest topics among enterprises and public sector agencies in the past few years - and for good reason. The frequency of and subsequent damages associated with data breaches have been on a steeply rising track since the early 2000s and, despite the efforts of many decision-makers and leaders, there have been few signs that identity theft and information exposure are going to begin to dissipate any time soon.

It is worth noting that efforts to secure data, communications and systems have not been nearly as proactive, comprehensive or widespread as they should be, while the excuses for not having tight protections in place are few and far between. Email encryption, data center security, network monitoring and myriad other defense solutions are readily available and have become even more intuitive in the past few years.

Many companies have appeared to believe that they are simply outside the scope of the average hacker, and that they need not concern themselves with security investments given the fact that their risk level is so low. This is a strange, misguided and dangerous line of thinking that is the simple product of poor awareness, and it must be eradicated from the general mentalities of corporate executives in the near future.

Anyone who has read the news in the past year has likely become all-too-familiar with the term "data breach," so why is it not the highest priority of decision-makers in every organization around the globe? The answer has yet to be ironed out, but another massive breach has further indicated that leaders are in need of a significant changing of the guards if they should hope to avoid becoming the next victims.

Back to Russia
In what has been hailed as one of the most significant data breaches in the history of the Internet, Russian hackers are believed to have stolen roughly 1.2 billion email account logins and passwords. Before diving much further into this story, though, it is important to remember that experts and analysts have been skeptical to say the least, citing the fact that hard evidence of this theft has yet to come to fruition.

Furthermore, it is unclear which types of parties were targeted, why the hackers were only interested in email account information and many other matters of note. Now, though, experts are starting to gear up in their analysis of the event, trying to figure out what happened, why it did, where the breach originated and what needs to be done to avoid a similar occurrence in the future.

Expert Brian Krebs, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, recently affirmed that the security firm to uncover the breach has been reliable in the past, and that his analysis of the information at hand indicates that the event did in fact occur. He also noted that the amount of information breached is not all that high in the context of large cybercriminal operations that operate in Russia and other nations.

Krebs stated that similar breaches have been the product of SQL injections, and that stealing credentials can help assailants trick other users into giving up more. That is to say, once an account or website has been compromised, the breadth of damages can spread relatively quickly. He stated that spam and junk email are likely to be a big measure in the attack moving forward, and that individuals who do not have tight account credential management practices in place might want to be worried.

Time to move forward
At the end of the day, events such as this one tend to shock a little life into many decision-makers and business leaders, but can also lead to poor response and reactions. For example, some might believe that it is simply impossible to reduce their risks when a group of hackers half the world away can steal 1.2 billion email account credentials in one fell swoop, not being discovered until after the fact.

However, this is not the case. Companies that focus on more streamlined and effective access management, especially for sensitive accounts like email, will be more likely to take these types of events in stride. Hackers are highly opportunistic in nature, meaning they will always be going after the low-hanging fruit rather than the most well-equipped and defended organizations.

The New York Times, reporting on the event, cited the comments of Gartner security analyst Avivah Litan, who affirmed that traditional approaches to credential management are simply not going to cut it.

"Companies that rely on usernames and passwords have to develop a sense of urgency about changing this," Litan told the source. "Until they do, criminals will just keep stockpiling people's credentials."

Combined with sound email encryption, data center security and other technologies, smarter defense policies can make a big difference in the protection of corporate assets.