stolen laptop

Advice on security for small/medium sized organisations

November 16th, 2009

We’ve talked about the The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) several times here, most recently in Encrypt Before the Law Smacks It On.  We talk about the ICO because it is one of the few governmental agencies, anywhere in the world, that has real legal powers to ensure that organizations keep private data secure.  Knowing the quality of work that the ICO has created it is intriguing to see their latest project.  The ICO is soliciting bids for a project to research and produce a report on the availability of advice on information security for small/medium sized businesses (SMBs).

The ICO says that “The aim of the project is to establish whether there is appropriate advice available on keeping personal information secure for small to medium sized organisations.”  They want to understand what authoritative advice is available and how these information can best be made accessible to these small organizations.

Government Report on Security for SMB Organisations

On the one hand you have to wonder if the world needs another government report.  But on the other hand I think back the number of small and medium sized businesses that have been featured within the electronic walls of this blog alone. When you read through the ICO enforcement page you will spot some large businesses like UPS – but there are many small businesses like a sole medical practitioner or small government agencies that have fallen prey to unsecured and unencrypted data.

A great deal of the ICO’s enforcement efforts concern the loss of personal data – most often the media which is not appropriately encrypted. In theory, Large organisations, whether in the public or private sector, should have the resources to enable them to either maintain an ‘in-house’ security capacity or to obtain support from those with specialist security expertise.

What is much less clear is whether there is sufficient advice and resources available for smaller organisations.  While the organizations themselves might be smaller, some of them will hold vast repositories of personal information – on par or greater than a large organization.  But it is the rare small organization that has the resources to afford to either retain ‘in-house’ specialists or to pay for the support of security consultants.

Just because you are small, it does not mean your database is small!

While we are months away from this report, indeed we are at least a month away just from the selection of the organization to handle this study, we can only hope that this study will highlight the value that security via software-as-a-service (SaaS) brings to the table.

Many large organization select SaaS tools like Alertsec to ensure the security of their hard drives; making a selection that is highly cost-efficient.  However, if services like Alertsec did not exist, these large businesses would find other ways (albeit more expensive ways) to address the security issues. SMB often have a different challenge in that they have little to no budget for critical security projects.  They might, and often do, think that they have no options.  Only when they see the cost of ownership data to they realize that security and encryption are indeed possible in their small and underfunded world.

Software as a Service fits SMB

Hopefully, when the report with “advice on security for small/medium sized organisations” comes out in 2010 it will recognize the considerable options and benefits that SaaS provides for small and medium sized organizations.

Your data is your data, no matter where it is

October 26th, 2009

laptop-puzzle-pieceWith some of the most stringent reporting requirement regarding data breaches, the tiny state of New Hampshire (population 1.3 million) in the northeastern United States is turning into the place to go to learn about data breaches.   The latest news on how a “laptop left on plane put pension fund participants at risk” is an interesting tale about how security does not stop at your firewall – indeed security is a piece of most every business puzzle.

Party A does not encrypt and loses data owned by Party B

This story is a bit hard to follow but essentially on June 14 an employee of the Verso Paper Corp. left a company laptop behind on an airplane.  One their laptop were two documents that contained the names and Social Security Numbers of some former and current participants in the PACE Industry Union-Management Pension Fund (PIUMPF). According to a letter (pdf) sent to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, it seems that PIUMPF had provided Verso with the data as part of a discussion relating to the possible merger of Verso’s pension plan into PIUMPF.

So say you are the IT manager at PIUMPF and perhaps if you have secured and encrypted all your data – you are sitting safe and pretty.  But your company’s data is shared with Verso and they don’t have nearly as good security – their laptops are not encrypted and as this case highlights – a third party can bring you down from a security perspective.

You can’t just encrypt, You have to educate

Alertsec has written and talked about this many times.  What your partners do matters: from Software-As-A-Service vendors who host your data to the company, to the company that carries your backup tapes to a vault to business partners that gain access to some or all of your data. When it comes to security, the actions of your partners matter.

Any other vendor that will come in contact with your confidential data has to be asked to follow the same stringent security protocols that you use.  However, the decision to share data may occur outside the confines of the IT world.  This is a key reason why it is not just enough to secure and encrypt your organization’s PCs – you have to ensure that your senior leaders understand the security issues of data sharing.

Encryption is the only secure way to protect your information

It might seem pushy to ask questions about a business partner’s security procedures – but the case with Verso Paper  highlights why you have to be proactive and specifically tell business partners what you mean by security. If the unthinkable actually happens and your business partner loses a computer with your laptop, a tool like Alertsec Xpress ensures that the information is protected at all times and cannot be compromised which ensures you complete peace of mind.

Encrypt Before the Law Smacks It On!

October 22nd, 2009

The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) is the UK’s independent authority set up to promote access to official information and to protect personal information.  The ICO has legal powers to ensure that organizations comply with the requirements of the Data Protection Act.  The ICO is an outgrowth of the The Data Protection Act 1998 which has helped to encourage businesses to step up and take action to ensure appropriate protection of data. The ICO, which is responsible for enforcing the Act, has shown great success in getting organizations to cooperate after DPA violations.

Information Commissioners Office Enforcements

Reading through the ICO enforcement page is like reading an advertisement for encryption software.

  • 14 September 2009 – Billing Pharmacy Ltd, theft of an unencrypted computer containing sensitive personal data for around 1,000 customers.
  • 4 September 2009 – Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, an unencrypted memory stick was lost by an employee.
  • 21 August 2009 – London Borough of Sutton, theft of two unencrypted laptops.
  • 20 August 2009 – Repair Management Services Ltd (formally MVRA), theft of an unencrypted laptop containing the personal information of approximately 36,800 individuals.
  • 12 August 2009 – UPS Limited, an unencrypted password-protected laptop was stolen containing the payroll data of approximately 9,150 UK based UPS employees.
  • 28 July 2009 – Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust at St Mary’s Hospital, South Wharf Road, London, theft of six unencrypted laptop computers (two incidents)
  • 28 July 2009 – NHS Lothian, theft of an unencrypted memory stick
  • 28 July 2009 – London Clubs International Limited, theft of an unencrypted laptop containing the data of approximately 26,000 customers.
  • 14 July 2009 – Chelsea & Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust – theft of an unencrypted USB memory stick containing personal data relating to 143 of the Trust’s patients.
  • 14 July 2009 – The Hampshire Partnership NHS Trust, theft of an unencrypted laptop computer, containing the personal data of 349 patients and 258 members of staff.
  • 14 July 2009 – The Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust, loss of an unencrypted computer disk containing personal data relating to some of the Trust’s patients.
  • 14 July 2009 – Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust, theft of two unencrypted laptop computers containing personal data relating to 23 and up to 80 of the Trust’s patients respectively.

Password protected laptops are not secure

Referring to the UPS case noted above, Mick Gorrill, Assistant Information Commissioner with the ICO, said ‘Password protected laptops are not secure. I urge all organisations to restrict the amount of personal information that is taken off secure sites. I am pleased that UPS has encrypted its laptops and smartphones, and I urge other organisations to follow suit.”

Encryption is the most Affordable Security Approach

In all these cases, the breaches are clear examples where had data security measure like laptop encryption software been used; the entire incidents could have been avoided.  There are so many benefits to encryption; it is so affordable; it is so obvious – yet as the ICO enforcements show – we are a long way from universal laptop encryption.

In each of the cases noted here, the organization implement encryption policies as part of the enforcement with the ICO – and I bet each of them wished they had  implemented the same policies on your own, ahead of the law!

Catch a Thief or Secure Your Data?

June 20th, 2009

Computer theft is becoming more of an issue every day.   Laptops are getting smaller – which makes them easier to forget and easier for somebody to steal.  Laptops are being used in more places – restaurants, coffee shops, libraries, airports which means more opportunities for theft.  At the same time more and more anti-theft tools are becoming available for laptops.  However, as a business you need to what’s more important –  the laptop or the contents of the laptop.

The reality is that most everybody wants to be the detective who solves the case.  Look at the number of TV shows about detectives.  Look at the number of mystery novels.  The intrigue of solving a crime captures the imagination of many people.  Playing off of this aspect of human nature, there are more and more tools that are designed to help you catch a laptop thief and recover the laptop.

Consider Prey which advertises that  it “helps you find your stolen laptop by sending timed reports to your email with a bunch of information of its whereabouts.”  I should not even really use the world “advertise” because Prey is a free product.  Prey is open source and available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. All they ask is that “if you ever recover your computer by using Prey you buy us a round o’ beer.” So adding Prey to your data protection plan is as inexpensive as it gets.

But for a business there are so many flaws in this “detective” approach.

The report that Prey sends you includes the general status of the computer, a list of running programs and active connections, fully-detailed network and WiFi information, a screenshot of the running desktop and — in case your laptop has an integrated webcam — a picture of the thief.  Now all this data is cool and could potentially help solve a crime and recover your laptop.

But wait, the report tells you the list of running programs which means somebody is accessing all your programs.  Which means somebody could already be pretending to be one of your employees.  Somebody could have already accessed data on this computer.

Plus Prey only works if it can access an Internet connection so that means that the criminal has already connected the PC to the Internet and could be uploading, copying and even sharing your data.  In the extreme case of actually catching a thief using the laptop and using the data – the Prey report could actually be used as evidence of a data breach and be used as evidence against your company by somebody suing for damages.  In the worst case scenario, the data might not help you catch the crook and it is then used in court against you – a wonderful lose-lose scenario.

There are a myriad of products like Prey on the market or getting ready to enter the marketplace.  They are good products – we don’t intend to criticize their quality. The question you need to ask is – “What matters the most to your company – the laptop or the data on the laptop.”  If you truly have no data that requires security/privacy than Prey and it’s counterparts could be an awesome addition to your security plan.  However, if the data on the laptop is more important than the laptop than you should be exploring options like data encryption that ensure that the data on the laptop is secure and cannot be accessed by a thief.

Catching a thief, and even catching a thief on a webcam is far more exciting than protecting data – but given the potential economics of a lost laptop it is probably far less important for most IT managers.