Thieves stole a laptop from the home of a Forrester Research employee during the week of Nov. 26, potentially exposing the names, addresses and Social Security numbers of an undisclosed number of current and former employees and directors, the company said in a letter mailed to those affected on Dec. 3.
Forrester "Chief People Officer" Elizabeth Lemons said in the letter that the hard drive is password-protected but made no mention of encryption.
The laptop contained records pertaining to those who have received grants of Forrester stock options or who have participated in the research firm's Employee Stock Purchase Plan, according to the letter. Those who have done contractual work for the consultancy, but who haven't participated in either stock plan, also appear to be affected.
The incident appears to be a clear case of, "Do as I say, not as I do." Besides the irony of a technology consultancy that apparently does not encrypt sensitive data on employee laptops, the office of Forrester's "chief people officer" apparently had not informed the firm's media staff of the incident before sending out the letter.
When eWEEK contacted Forrester's press hotline on Dec. 5, a staffer said that this was the first she had heard of the incident.
As such, the media relations staff was not prepared with an incidence response plan. In these days of multiple weekly high-profile data breaches in the news, consultants routinely warn firms of the importance of encrypting portable data devices such as memory sticks, PDAs and laptops.
They also encourage organizations to lay out incidence response plans that detail a chain of command to ensure that the right executive is informed, that public relations staff are devoted to incidence response and that the proper authorities have been notified, among other things.
The idea that password protection actually protects laptop data is one that's laughed out of the room by security professionals. "Anybody with a relative clue, or at least a copy of Knoppix or F.I.R.E. [data recovery tools], could potentially bypass security measures implemented on lost or stolen drives. Period," wrote data breach experts at Attrition.org, a volunteer-run site that keeps a running list of data breaches relied on by organizations including Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
"Unless data on a drive is encrypted with a key either unknown or inaccessible to an intruder, that data is open to compromise," Attrition said in a February posting that followed the recovery of a lost VA laptop.
Click here to get the Lowdown on Laptop Security from Ziff Davis Enterprise Research.
"We won't even go into cracking AES256 or 3DES here; for the most part, such measures are impractical. Cracking algorithms over 128-bit is possible, but only with a lot of time and/or firepower. However, shoving a CD in the machine, rebooting and typing: '# mount /dev/hda1 /tmp/stolen_info/ # cd /tmp/stolen_info/ # ls -la' is not that difficult and it makes all of that 'password-protected' data quite readable, even for a casual computer user.
"If the person who stole the laptop were to remove the drive and perform a bit-by-bit copy, they would circumvent any password protection on the computer. Remember, BIOS and Operating System passwords rely on the computer and OS to boot up. If you remove the drive, neither will offer any level of protection and are completely worthless."
A volunteer for Attrition who goes by the online name "Lyger" told eWEEK that Forrester's notification letter to those affected "should be of little comfort," given that Forrester didn't divulge whether the laptop's hard drive was encrypted.
At any rate, it may be ironic, but Forrester's dilemma is far from unique. A former analyst for a defunct technology consultancy wasn't surprised to learn the details behind the breach. "When I was at Meta, we didn't do anything in our back office that we preached to others," he said. "It is symptomatic of all businesses. They really don't pay any attention to their own employees when warned of something wrong."
Forrester finds itself in good company when it comes to lost laptops. According to a recent study from the Ponemon Institute, lost and stolen laptops and mobile devices rank as the most frequent cause of a data breach:
Almost half (49 percent) of data breaches in a 2007 study were due to lost or stolen laptops or other devices such as USB flash drives. That finding has been consistent throughout the years, Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute, told eWEEK when the study was released last week.
Forrester has reported the theft to the local police department and the Middlesex County District Attorney's Office in Massachusetts. Lemons said in the Forrester letter that the theft is an "isolated incident" and does not involve a breach of network security.
Forrester is providing those affected—excepting residents of New York, due to what Forrester said are state laws restricting the practice—with a full year of credit monitoring, including $25,000 identity theft insurance.
Forrester was not able to provide input for this article by the time it posted.
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