With the regulatory compliance imperative beating down on companies everywhere, I get a lot of pitches for products with the broad goal of protecting data from unauthorized access. There are many different approaches to this in the industry, and some of them are harder to implement than others. My impression, and there’s some common sense behind it, is that enterprises are moving fastest on the easiest ones to implement.
What’s this easiest method? It’s encryption, and especially full-disk encryption. There has been a lot of action in this market.McAfee bought Safeboot late last year. CheckPoint bought Pointsec. And now Sophos is buying Utimaco. With all these purchases, look for sophisticated encryption capabilities to be rolled into corporate client security suites over the next few years. I’m not sure if Symantec has these products already or if they just haven’t bought someone yet.
These PKI companies do a lot more than disk encryption, but full disk encryption, especially on notebooks, is the most straightforward thing you can do. It’s been tricky and expensive in the past, but I’m told that key management, the tricky part of all this, has gotten a lot better of late. Sophos says that key management was the reason they are buying Utimaco; they’ve done it right. It’s also true that prices have come down in this space. This is naturally because of competition, and I think that Microsoft’s Bitlocker probably has something to do with it.
The other reason to deal with encryption first is that just about all visible examples of data compromise are the types that could be addressed by encryption. Consider a generic example: “The Federal Department of Whatever announced that a notebook computer on which the personal records of thousands of taxpayers were stored was left in a cab in Brooklyn last week and has not yet been recovered.” In most of these cases I figure the data probably isn’t at issue because whoever picks up the notebook will delete all the data and sell the hardware, but obviously there’s an issue.
What if the Whatever Department spokesperson could say they are confident any data on the notebook is inaccessible because it’s all encrypted with strong encryption (and department policies mandate 2-factor authentication or at least strong passwords)? I haven’t heard of a case like this yet and I’m not sure how it would be received in the press and how expert analysts would react to it. And as I’ve said, it’s not just about disk encryption; there have been cases of lost backup tapes, lost USB keys, and of course the TJX compromise was as a result of weak or nonexistent encryption on Wi-Fi.
Next Step: Data Loss Prevention
The next step up is what is generally called DLP or Data Loss Prevention, where systems monitor the network to look for data of particular sensitive types, such as credit cards or social security numbers, on the way out. I’ve always been leery of this sort of thing. In principle I can see how it would work, although for it to work you need many other policies in place, especially with respect to the use of encryption; the DLP needs to be able to see the data in order to analyze it. And of course many of the same companies in the encryption business are also in the DLP business.
This angle on DLP also makes it a defense-in-depth component. It’s not just about accidental or malicious employee actions. If an attacker were to gain access to a privileged system on the network perhaps through a targeted attack, DLP could prevent them from taking sensitive information. But the bulk of such “data leakage” cases appear to be accidental.
I’m actually more curious about false positives than missing data. It’s like a lot of security issues: A high number of false positives would be an administrative burden, either causing the alerts not to be taken seriously or for the DLP to be turned down to where it’s maybe not as effective.
Vendors tell me that this sort of DLP is catching on, but not as quickly. Gartner says (according to one vendor I spoke to) that 5 percent of the Fortune 500 use any real form of content monitoring.
Further ratcheting up the data protection meter, we have systems designed to protect against the loss of intellectual property and other non-generic data forms, as opposed to generally well-understood forms such as credit card numbers. The appeal is obvious, but this form definitely seems nichey and I’m even more leery of it.
Because of the sensitive nature of the data, you can’t trust your IT people to administer the system. Various business unit personnel with authorization to access the data, or perhaps legal, or compliance officers, would need to work with the system. This alone makes things confusing.
One last thing that leaves me wondering about intellectual property protection is whether we really know how effective it is. Because of the nature of the technology, it’s unlikely that outsiders would be allowed to observe or audit the use of the software, and many companies would have an incentive to hush up or misrepresent results.
I like the idea of DLP being mixed in with the rest of the security suite. These suites are already based around a data scanning engine, so the most efficient way to implement it is as another window on that same data scan. Better that than adding a new scanner.
This whole market has the look of one taking shape over time, but you may have less time than you think, I’ve talked to lawyers about this stuff and their attitude is that the technology is available so you should be expected to use it. If data gets lost, or some critical IP gets stolen, you’re at fault if you didn’t use this newfangled tech to prevent it. Let’s hope the tech picks up the pace before your own shareholders sue you.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.
For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEK.com Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer’s blog Cheap Hack.