Moody’s Outlook Downgrade of Equifax: A Wake-up Call to BoardsMay 26 2019
Wall Street has been abuzz this week over drastic measures by credit ratings agency Moody’s to downgrade its rating outlook of Equifax, with expensive data breach fallout named as a major factor for the poor marks. While the action was not unexpected, the landmark nature of the outlook should provide some needed emphasis to both boards of directors and CISOs of the modern business imperative for cyber resilience, security and risk experts say.
“Today’s news puts a punctuation mark on the business reality of cybersecurity risks,” says Kevin Bocek, vice president of security strategy and threat intelligence at Venafi, who believes this is going to push more boards to take in increasingly active role in understanding and managing cybersecurity risks. “They definitely need to do more than ask the CISO some high-level questions. Equifax is in the hot seat now, but most of the Fortune 500 CEOs and CISOs would do no better in the same situation.”
CNBC broke the news last night of the note from Moody’s changing its rating outlook that cited the $690 million in breach expenses — including costs for settling mounting class action lawsuits — and increased need for infrastructure investments to be made by the company through 2020 to address systemic cybersecurity weaknesses found in post-breach scrutiny.
Joe Mielenhausen, a Moody’s spokesperson, told CNBC that “this is the first time the fallout from a breach has moved the needle enough to contribute to the change” in ratings outlook.
Equifax’s record-breaking data breach, first disclosed in September 2017, was eventually found to have exposed the information of 147.9 million people. Technically the exposure was triggered through the exploitation of an unpatched Apache Struts vulnerability, but security industry experts and government officials say that more serious organizational problems and lack of executive oversight were the true culprit of what Congress called an “entirely preventable” breach.
The fallout from the breach included the ouster of Equifax’s CISO and eventually its CEO, and the company is still feeling the effects of class action suits from consumers and shareholder derivative lawsuits.
“This is Moody’s delivering on their intent last November to take cyber risk into account when grading companies,” says Steve Durbin, managing director of the Information Security Forum. “This will certainly send a clear message to boards in a language that they understand that cyber risk is integral to business risk and that the implications of a breach or loss of data can have very real impact.”
Durbin says he’s been advocating for some time to both the insurance industry and credit rating agencies to take cyber risk into account as they set policy pricing and assess company value. He believes this action by Moody’s will set the tone for assessment of business health in the future.
“Moving forward, this should become the norm since cyber risk is so integral to business risk that an assessment of business health without taking cyber risk and a company’s resilience into account will become meaningless,” he says.
Indeed, CNBC reported that Moody’s hinted as such in its Equifax note, stating that it will increasingly scrutinize cybersecurity “for all data oriented companies” in the future.
Security insiders say that this Moody’s action should not only be a wake-up call to CEOs and boards, but it’s also a crucial inflection point for CISOs.
According to Laurence Pitt, security strategy director at Juniper Networks, it’s another “chance in conversation” for security leaders — one that they shouldn’t blow by lacking the right data or insights about organization-wide cyberrisk.
“This incident changes how business will look at cybersecurity, so cybersecurity needs to change how it talks to business,” he says.
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Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading. View Full Bio