Learning from WikiLeaks: What Companies Must Do to Protect Themselves

By Jack E. Gold  |  Posted 2010-12-02

Learning from WikiLeaks: What Companies Must Do to Protect Themselves

The whole WikiLeaks event speaks volumes about how truly unserious (or worse, incompetent) the United States government is about security. This is not a new exposure area, as companies have been dealing with "data leakage" problems for years.

It's not like there aren't lots of tools out there already that can track document access and allow only certain users to view, read and copy files. Security companies such as McAfee and Symantec-and many of the major application platform vendors such as RSA, Oracle, IBM and SAP-have leakage prevention capabilities. Obviously, the government saw fit to ignore these capabilities-to its detriment.

But the WikiLeaks event also brings to light a major security issue with huge implications for enterprises, not just for government agencies. The issue is that the highest probability of data loss or exposure will result not from an outside attack but from inside your own organization. Indeed, right now, the government thinks all the leaks are the work of a single person-a private individual who was able to access millions of files and easily copy them to a CD or flash drive.

It's also very likely that in your enterprise there are many private individuals who could easily access private and sensitive corporate data-your company's most valuable asset. In fact, it's amazing how lax data access rules are in most companies despite the many regulatory compliance requirements such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Also, if someone unauthorized did access those files, would you even know about it?

Components of a Solid Data Protection Plan

Components of a solid data protection plan

So what should enterprises do so as not to become the next victim of WikiLeaks (which now says it will start releasing corporate documents as well)? The most critical lesson to be learned by companies from WikiLeaks is this: trust your employees but verify that they are not doing something they shouldn't. The vast majority of your employees will be ethical but, every so often, you'll get one who isn't. These are the ones you need to protect against as best as possible (nothing is 100 percent secure or foolproof).

To create a solid data protection plan for your company, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does your company have written policies in place to handle sensitive documents and have those policies been effectively communicated to your employees? If not, why not?

2. Are certain areas of data or files restricted?

3. Are automated tools in place to track document access?

4. Is the most sensitive data encrypted so it can't be exposed?

5. Are your employees aware of the penalties for unauthorized access or copying of files?

These are just some of the components of a data protection plan that companies must seriously consider. Not having one is like leaving your front door unlocked.

Of course, that doesn't mean you shouldn't also be protecting your assets from outside infiltration over the Internet. Clearly this is also a data leakage threat and there are many reported losses of data from malicious attackers. But most companies do a pretty good job of that already (although not all of them do) through the use of firewalls (for example, Cisco and Juniper) and effective segmentation of networks.

But few enterprises actually look at leakage protection as an "inside job" challenge. That is why it is critical that companies do more to eliminate this specific threat. I think that is the biggest lesson of WikiLeaks. If your company doesn't already have a "data leakage" prevention plan, what are you waiting for?

Jack E. Gold is the founder and Principal Analyst at J. Gold Associates, an IT analyst firm based in Northborough, Mass., covering the many aspects of business and consumer computing and emerging technologies. Jack is a former VP of research services at the META Group. He has over 35 years experience in the computer and electronics industries. He can be reached at jack.gold@jgoldassociates.com.

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