Data Breaches: The Enemy Is Us

The employment of human beings is the most common cause of data breaches.

Wondering whos causing all the data breaches? Thats easy: Just look in the mirror.

Or, as PGP Director of Product Management John Dasher puts it, its "the employment of human beings" thats the most common cause of data breaches.

Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute, told eWEEK that at least 80 percent of data breaches involve the human factor, a finding thats remained steady in the seven or so studies the institute has done over the past years.

The most recent of these studies, titled "2007 Annual Study: U.S. Cost of a Data Breach," was released on Nov. 28. The study—sponsored by encryption software maker PGP and data loss prevention vendor Vontu—surveyed the experiences of 35 organizations across an array of 15 industries, each of which has suffered data breaches that involved from fewer than 4,000 records to more than 125,000 records.

Lost and stolen laptops and mobile devices still rank as the most frequent cause of a data breach: Almost half (49 percent) of data breaches in the 2007 study were due to lost or stolen laptops or other devices such as USB flash drives.

In fact, that number likely understates the problem. A lost laptop is hard to ignore, Dasher pointed out, but if a memory stick falls out of somebodys pocket, theyll tend to just go to the supply cabinet and grab another one without informing management that the organization has lost control of potentially sensitive data.

"One well-known security person said to me, Whos going to look at a memory stick and actually read it? Who s going to waste their time?" Ponemon said.

"I would," Dasher said.

Disregarding security policy is another common human failing often at the bottom of data breaches. The most recent publicly reported incidence was that of a Canadian laboratory, which on Nov. 20 admitted that a contractor had taken home a computer containing patient records. The contractor was contacted at his home office by a professed security researcher who told him that patient information, including HIV and hepatitis test results, were accessible off the contractors open Internet connection. An undetermined amount of patient records were involved.

"Think of legitimate behaviors," Dasher said. "A financial analyst goes into a secure database, legitimately. He does an extract of your top 1,000 customers. He slams it into a spreadsheet. Its no longer in a database, so database security is no longer at play. Now its on a server, or a laptop, or a thumbdrive: multiple copies of highly sensitive, highly valuable information floating around."

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