Making a Privacy Investment

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2003-04-21

Making a Privacy Investment

To users and operators of information systems, the plummeting costs of digital storage and processing power are becoming as much a threat as a blessing when it comes to protecting data privacy.

Massive processor complexes combing through vast banks of data are silver-bullet solutions for those whod like to gain unauthorized access to the byproducts of personal transactions and enterprise business processes.

The edge of the wedge for attackers is the growing ease of accumulating histories of traffic. More bandwidth to the network—and more capacity to store whats seen—means more raw material that attackers can sift for common mistakes. Users make a gift of their data, for example, by using identical IDs and passwords on multiple Web sites.

Compounding the problem is growing ease of traffic interception. Sniffing wireless links, for example, is much easier than tapping network cables and is also easier to associate (using directional antennas and physical surveillance) with specific individuals. Other personal data, such as home address or automobile license plate number, can then be collected to enable full-spectrum identity theft. Naive deployment of off-the-shelf wireless products is the fastest-growing threat to IT systems and can only be contained by user-friendly security tools and user training.

System builders reduce their risks by decreasing the number of places where one careless mistake can compromise a system.

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Authentication of users, for example, must not depend on simple combinations of user ID and password. Users choose obvious passwords and are careless in keeping them to themselves. More reliable two-factor authentication requires any two of something one knows (such as a password), something one has (such as an active encryption token) and something one is (such as a fingerprint). Judicious use of two-factor schemes—for example, in granting physical access to facilities—improves security of everything within that two-factor perimeter.

Databases should incorporate security in their own structure, rather than assume that application developers will serve as data guardians. Individual database user accounts are more difficult to administer than group IDs, but nothing else provides sufficient accountability for data alterations. Users may, however, share common roles that give them role-based privileges such as adding records only to specified tables.

For any given enterprise, or for any single user, its not necessary (or even possible) to be immune to all attacks; its enough to be among the least-vulnerable targets. In a world of passwords that readily yield to a trivial dictionary search, for example, a system whose passwords combine two unrelated words—especially with a punctuation character in between—will almost certainly not be the first one cracked.

Its a target-rich environment. For all but the best-known, high-value targets, merely being in the least-vulnerable third of the population for every common mode of attack will translate into high returns on security investments.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

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