PC Security Tools Can Prevent WikiLeaks-Style Data Thefts

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


While it's not clear what version of Windows was running on the computer that Manning used to steal secrets from the State Department, the ability to manage policies, the ability to control the boot process and the ability to keep people from writing data to removable media has been around for a while. Much of these capabilities are not only around, they're already available in Windows or in your computer's BIOS. All that's required to prevent such leaks is the knowledge and desire to enforce the security standards. 

It's the knowledge and desire to enforce standards that was missing from the IT management at PFC Manning's base. It could also be missing from your company if you haven't made it a priority. While it's possible that a certain amount of apathy was involved in Manning's theft, meaning that nobody in his immediate command had the specific duty to keep him from stealing data, that shouldn't be necessary. It certainly shouldn't be the case now that he has demonstrated the ease with which such a devastating breach can be accomplished. 

So we return to having the ability and the desire to prevent a data breach. The ability to prevent the use of removable media or USB devices should not be a limiting factor. The Windows Group Policy Editor isn't particularly hard to use, and Microsoft provides detailed directions. Similar policy editors exist for Windows XP and Windows Vista. You can search for specific instructions on how to disable removable storage, and you'll get step by step instructions. 

Turning off the ability to boot from a removable storage device is a little less obvious. You'll need to go into a computer's BIOS setup during boot where you'll find the menu for the boot instructions. The exact process differs from one computer to the next, but it's not hard to figure out. 

Then there are products like GFI's that provide granular control over what information gets put where and by whom. They're not hard to use either.  

That leaves the desire. One would have thought that the need to protect national security would have been reason enough, but in the Manning's case it clearly wasn't. But it doesn't have to be that way in your company. 

What's required is to make such protection a priority, to make auditing of the process an equal priority and for someone to explain to the senior executives who set priorities that loss of data will result in stockholder displeasure and unfavorable publicity. This should do it. But if it doesn't, perhaps reminding the CEO that the penalties for failing to comply with federal privacy laws can include jail time will. The CEO might even get a cell next to Manning.

Wayne Rash Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazineÔÇÖs 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.

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