PC Security Tools Can Prevent WikiLeaks-Style Data Thefts

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2010-12-08 Print this article Print

News Analysis: You can lock down the computers in your company and avoid the costly and embarrassing loss of critical corporate data if you want to.

It was during the course of reviewing an Acer Veriton N282G that I realized that the company had included all of the security tools necessary to prevent exactly the kind of data theft that eventually led to the WikiLeaks scandal.  

If the base in Iraq where PFC Bradley Manning worked had been using these computers (or computers with similar capabilities) and had they been managed properly, the vast dump of State Department messages would never have happened. With a device like this Manning couldn't have copied anything to a CD or to a USB memory stick and all those sensitive diplomatic messages wouldn't have been stolen. 

Never mind the obvious issue of why a young and inexperienced junior enlisted man was allowed access to the information in the first place. If he hadn't been able to copy everything to a CD and deliver it to WikiLeaks, the best he would have been able to accomplish would have been hand-written notes, and that would not have had the same impact. 

What makes this Acer computer interesting is that it has a management tool that prevents the use of a mass storage device in any of its USB ports. Since it doesn't have any other removable storage, that will make copying of a quarter-million diplomatic e-mails pretty tough. But it does more by also allowing the administrator to prevent booting from removable media, which means that someone can't boot from an external drive and then read data on the installed drive. This is a pretty nice configuration, assuming the administrator goes to the trouble to implement these features. 

But the Acer isn't unique in this ability. The Windows Group Policy Manager has the ability to disable reading, writing or both from removable storage. You'll need to invoke the Group Policy Editor to do this. But as an administrator you can push this policy out to other computers in your domain. There are also a number of other resources that allow control over such removable devices. One I've used in the past is GFI's EndPoint Security software, but a quick search on the Internet will turn up lots of others. 

Likewise, with most computers it's possible to control the boot process so that you can prevent booting from removable media, and thus prevent the loading of an alternate OS that can then breach your security. Of course this would have to be done by the administrator and the administrator would have to set a password on the BIOS to prevent tampering. But most of the time this capability already exists on today's computers. 

Wayne Rash Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.

He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.

Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

Rocket Fuel