PC Security Tools Can Prevent WikiLeaks-Style Data Thefts

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2010-12-08

PC Security Tools Can Prevent WikiLeaks-Style Data Thefts

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. 

PC Security Tools Can Prevent WikiLeaks-Style Data Thefts


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.

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