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A Tailored Approach to Data Security in the Hospitality Industry

The hospitality industry has long been shielded from security incidents plaguing other critical infrastructure industries, such as financial services, healthcare, national defense, and energy. However, as technological advancement altered operational elements within the hospitality industry, such as payment processing and guest identification databases, decision-makers immediately noticed malicious activities.

The hospitality sector suffered 13% of all reported cyberattacks in the past two years, compromising networks of major hotel chains worldwide—thus exposing guests’ personally identifiable information, full names and addresses, payment card information, and other privacy-related details. 

One of the most famous security incidents in the hospitality industry was the Marriott Data Breach, which went undetected until 2018 and exposed over 327 million customer records to an unauthorized party. This cyber incident resulted in hefty legal and reputational challenges for the once-beloved hotel chain. This article explores a detailed approach to data security, focusing on alignment with the ever-changing threat landscape and market demands.

What Makes the Hospitality Sector Attractive to Threat Actors?

To offer convenience and foster a safer environment in a post-Covid world, numerous hotels switched to technical innovations like biometrics to speed up check-in processes. In addition, many guests now make online payments for their booking months before their check-in dates. Unfortunately, this creates more surface area for potential cyberattacks and makes this industry lucrative for threat actors:

  • Digital transformation: The pandemic accelerated digital transformation, forcing many hotels to adopt technologies prioritizing customer safety and convenience. Though advantageous, digitalization also opens the doorway for hackers to exploit the system.
  • Extensive data: The shift to the digital platform means that a massive amount of data containing personal details of guests, sensitive financial information, and more are present in the system. Hackers gaining access to the network can easily exploit this data.
  • Untrained staff: Most employees working in the hospitality sector are unaware of cyberattacks and cybersecurity best practices. They are easy to manipulate with phishing emails and unintentionally expose the system to cyber threats.
  • Lack of cybersecurity program: Although the hospitality industry is becoming familiar with digital assets, it is yet to implement proper cybersecurity measures. The absence of a robust cybersecurity program is an open invitation for hackers to effect a data breach.

Key Hospitality Data Security Challenges and Threats

The hotels and hospitality industry’s complex and interconnected digital environments provide cyber attackers with multiple entry points. Furthermore, as most employees are untrained to recognize cybersecurity threats, any infected individual hotel can compromise the security of the entire hotel chain.

Below are some of the critical hospitality data security challenges and threats:

  • Phishing: Hackers entice victims to open emails that appear to be from genuine sources. Lately, hackers have been using social engineering with phishing to persuade staff to reveal sensitive information.
  • Ransomware and malware: Downloading and running malicious software enables hackers to access and exploit all other connected systems. Attackers can also use ransomware to cut off access to important files and demand payment for their release.
  • DDoS: Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks are among cyber criminals’ most common methods to wreak havoc. Because the hospitality industry relies on an extensive interconnected network to provide the necessary services, malicious entry into one of these networks can potentially cripple the entire operation, hurting revenue streams.
  • Software and hardware vulnerabilities: The most commonly used applications in the hospitality industry are reservation, point-of-sale, and property management systems. These are critical for business continuity and overall operational integrity. However, the applications are often outdated or unpatched, with no security controls to protect against malicious cyber actors.
  • Unauthorized access management: Untrained staff with limited cybersecurity knowledge can lead to a massive security breach. Users may make mistakes or even intentionally act maliciously, causing data breaches on a larger scale.

Establishing a Resilient Security Posture for Hospitality Operations

Most of today’s cyber incidents originate from human error (negligence, ignorance, or insider threats). Unfortunately, the lack of adequate knowledge about the risks of technological operations makes organizations vulnerable to cyber exploitation. Therefore, establishing a resilient security posture for hospitality organizations must include proper cyber threat awareness training for employees, management teams, and leadership groups.

Below are some proven ways to improve the cybersecurity posture for hospitality operations:

  • Managed Security Services: Small-to-midsize hospitality companies are focused on the business side; there is not enough time to properly manage cybersecurity operations. Therefore, it is necessary to engage with reputable managed security service providers who are efficient and affordable experts in deploying and managing cybersecurity controls, such as endpoint security, network traffic monitoring, penetration testing, security awareness training, and compliance readiness assessment.
  • PCI-DSS Compliance: Complying with Payment Card Data Security Standard helps safeguard credit card information—covering everyone from the cardholder to the merchant processing the card and the payment gateway developer. Using encrypted card transactions on a PCI-DSS compliant platform secures sensitive financial information.
  • Update software and devices: Using the latest software versions play a vital role in hotel networks’ security resilience. Outdated systems contain many vulnerabilities, and upgrading them helps secure those access points and protect the data.
  • Secure data backup: Data backups are an integral part of all businesses, including the hospitality industry, and should be performed regularly. In addition, this helps with disasters and network damage. Moving away from on-site storage to off-site cloud storage is a solid option to deal with today’s data breaches.

Conclusion

The hospitality industry is currently ill-prepared to prevent cyber incidents given the alarming rise in cyberattacks: most hotel and entertainment service providers are sitting ducks for threat actors. Furthermore, as regional jurisdictions relax COVID-19 restrictions, the hospitality industry will experience an immediate boom that will invite malicious actors looking to exploit companies with weak cybersecurity postures. Therefore, improving these organizations’ cybersecurity posture is essential.

Instead of a full-time security team, businesses can opt for a reliable cybersecurity partner to improve their cybersecurity situation. Collaboration with a dedicated cybersecurity partner ensures the delivery of tailored security services—such as consistent security awareness training and phishing simulation tests, assessment and implementation of resilient security controls, and other technical and administrative controls to help your organization withstand targeted cyber-attacks.