Data Breaches or Breaches in Ethics?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Danny Lieberman

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I was standing in line at Ben Gurion airport, waiting for my bag to be x-rayed. A conversation started with a woman standing next to me in line. The usual sort – “Where are you traveling and what kind of work do you do?”

I replied that I was traveling to Warsaw and that I specialize in data security and compliance – helping companies prevent trusted insider theft and abuse of sensitive data.

She said, “well sure, I understand exactly what you mean – you help enforce ethical behavior of people in the organization”.

I stopped for a moment and asked her, hold on – “what kind of business are you in”? She said – “well, I worked in the GSS for years training teams tasked with protecting high echelon politicians and diplomats. I understand totally the notion of enforcing ethical behavior”. And now? I asked. Now, she said, ” I do the same thing, but on my own”.

Let’s call my new friend “Sarah”.

Sarah’s ethical approach was for me, a breath of fresh air. Until that point, I had defined our data security practice as an exercise in data collection, risk analysis and implementation of the appropriate technical security countermeasures to reduce the risk of data breach and abuse.

Employees, competitors and malicious attackers are all potential attackers. The objective is to implement a cost-effective portfolio of data security countermeasures – policies and procedures, software security assessments, network surveillance, data loss prevention (DLP) and encryption at various levels in the network and applications.

I define security as protecting information assets.

Sarah defines security as protecting ethical behavior.

In my approach to data security, employee behavior is an independent variable, something that might be observed but certainly, not something that can be controlled.

Since employees, contractors and business partners tend to have their own weaknesses and problems that are not reported on the balanced score card of the company, my strategy for data security posits that it is more effective to monitor data than to monitor employees and prevent unauthorized transfer or modification of data instead of trying to prevent irrational or criminal behavior of people who work in the extended enterprise.

In Sarah’s approach to data security, if you make a set of rules and train and enforce ethical behavior with good management, sensing and a dosage of fear in the workplace; you have cracked the data security problem.

So – who is right here?

Well – we’re both right, I suppose.

The answer is that without asset valuation and analysis of asset vulnerabilities, protecting a single asset class (human resources, data, systems or network) while ignoring others, may be a mistake.

Let’s examine two specific examples in order to test the truth of this statement.

Consider a call center with 500 customer service representatives. They use a centralized CRM application, they have telephones and email connectivity. Each customer service representative has a set of accounts that she handles.

A key threat scenario is leaking customer account information to unauthorized people – private investigators, reporters, paparazzi etc… The key asset is customer data but the key vulnerability is the people that breach ethical behavior on the way to breaching customer data.

In the case of customer service representatives breaching customer privacy, Sarah’s strategy of protecting ethical behavior is the best security countermeasure.

Now, consider a medical device company with technology that performs imaging analysis and visualization. The company deploys MRI machines in rural areas and uses the Internet to provided remote expert diagnosis for doctors and patients who do not have access to big city hospitals.

The key asset transmitted from the systems for remote diagnosis is PHI (protected health information), and the key vulnerabilities are in the network interfaces, the applications software and operating systems that the medical device company uses.

In  the case of remote data transfer and distributed/integrated systems, a combined strategy of software security, judicious network design and operating system selection (don’t use Microsoft Windows…) is the correct way to protect the data.

My conversation with Sarah at the airport gave me a lot of food for thought.

Data loss prevention (DLP technology) is great  and  ethical employee behavior is crucial but they need to work hand in glove.

Where there are people, there is a need to mandate, monitor and reinforce ethical behavior using  a clearly communicated corporate strategy with employees and contractors.

In an environment where users require freedom and flexibility in using applications such as email and search, the ethical behavior for protecting company assets starts with company executives who show from personal example that IT infrastructure is to be used to further the company’s business and improving customer service and not for personal entertainment, gain or gratification.

It’s the simple things in life that count.

Cross-posted from Israeli Software

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