Best Western forced to play defense on data breach disclosure

Could hotel chain have done a better job of defusing story about system intrusion?

The headline in this week's Glasgow Sunday Herald -- "Revealed: 8 million victims in the world's biggest cyber heist" -- was a grabber.

And it certainly got the attention of the Best Western hotel chain, which found itself scrambling to do damage control after the Scottish newspaper reported that hackers had broken into its online reservation system and stolen 8 million customer records. According to the Sunday Herald, the theft netted data on everybody who had stayed at Best Western's 1,312 European hotels this year and in 2007.

After the story appeared on August 24, US-based Best Western International acknowledged that the Herald had alerted it to a "possible compromise" of data. But the company refuted the Sunday Herald's claims about the scope of the system intrusion, saying that the story was "grossly unsubstantiated." Best Western said the breach had affected just 13 customers at a single hotel in Berlin -- a number that it later reduced to 10.

Nonetheless, the company couldn't stanch the online flood of stories and blog posts about the data breach that followed the publication of the Sunday Herald's story, which said that a hacker from India had obtained log-in credentials for Best Western's online booking system via a keystroke-logging program and then sold information on how to access the data in the system "through an underground network operated by the Russian mafia."

Best Western's experience highlights the public relations problems that can result from breach disclosures, as well as the need for companies to have comprehensive incident-response plans in place for dealing with such disclosures.

In this case, Best Western could have beaten the Sunday Herald to the punch by breaking the news about the breach itself. The intrusion took place on August 21; according to the newspaper, it brought the breach to the company's attention the following day, two days before the story was published.

In comments sent via e-mail this week, a Best Western spokeswoman indicated that the company was blindsided by the Sunday Herald's claims about the scope of the breach. The reporter who wrote the story didn't mention the possibility that 8 million records had been stolen when he talked to Best Western officials, the spokeswoman said. She said that he simply asked for the number of Best Western hotels and rooms in Europe, and that he appears to have used those numbers to extrapolate the 8 million figure.

And the only evidence of a breach that the reporter presented was a screenshot of a single log-in suggesting a possible compromise, the spokeswoman added. "Basically, the Herald elicited a statement from us on one issue and used the statement to report on another," she said.

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Jaikumar Vijayan

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