Archive for the ‘data security awareness’ Category

Private vs. public sector IT security: more dedicated staff, yet less awareness

March 3, 2011

According to recent data, the private sector lags behind with regards to data protection, while public sector organisations lead the way. David Cowan explains how firms can improve their IT security and avoid losing money, clients and reputation.

 

A recent survey commissioned by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) revealed that there is a remarkable difference between the public and private sector’s approach to Information Security. The data contained in the research carried out by Social and Market Strategic Research (SMSR) showed that, in fact, the public sector was much more aware of the Data Protection Act principles compared to the private sector.

When asked to identify, unprompted, the main principles contained in the ACT, the 7th Principle ‘Personal information is kept secure’ was mentioned by 60% of public sector organisations, compared to only 48% of private firms. However, a more shocking divide can be found in the awareness of the Information Commissioner’s Office’s existence: 42% of private firms had not heard about it at all, a percentage that actually increased from the previous years – yet this was not the case for public organisations, where only 3% were not aware of the UK’s independent authority set up to uphold information rights in the public interest.

A lack of awareness, however, does not prevent the majority of private sector firms from having more than 10 members of staff dedicated to information security-related duties, compared to an average of 2 in public sector organisations. Quantity is not directly proportional to quality, it seems.

In reality, the public sector has had more reasons to be more data protection-savvy due to handling large volumes of personal and sensitive data. The private sector should start following their example. Regulations have become stricter and ICO fines are tougher, with the authority now able to impose a fine of up to £500,000 for a serious breach. It is important, then, that all firms improve their awareness of information security and that they have an efficient system in place for protecting personal and sensitive information, and to deal with any breach in the most appropriate manner.

Private organisations which deal with sensitive and confidential data – such as banks and law firms – should take these results as a wake-up call and an opportunity to learn from the public sector. They are in fact the most at risk of suffering major consequences in case of a breach of the DPA.

Critically, it is important to understand the steps for improving Information Security. First of all, it is vital that organisations are aware of their information assets and the associated risks. They can do this by conducting an assessment of their Information Security Management System, in particular the controls surrounding the information assets of the organisation. This can then be assessed against the international standard for Information Security ISO 27001, to identify any weak points, possible corrective actions and areas of risk.

Once these have been identified, it is possible to plan remedial work which covers policies, procedures and technology, as well as staff education and awareness, implementing it on a continuous cycle. It is important to note that documents and technology alone are not enough to guarantee an improvement; however, they can minimise information security risks.

Staff commitment, from senior management to the most junior employees, is the key to make all the controls and procedures work. If staff are not made aware of policies and procedures introduced, or are not willing to collaborate, perhaps because they do not understand why they should change the way they have always worked, then no amount of technology can keep an organisation in line with the appropriate standards and regulations.

At the same time, management need to take strong ownership and underline the importance of data protection with a clear Information Security statement; their strategy should include disciplinary actions for whoever does not adhere to the policies. Investing time and effort in prevention will pay off more than insurance, as the latter may reduce some of the damages although not the most important cost – the organisation’s reputation.

It is undeniable that although data security risks can be minimised, they cannot be completely eliminated – there will always be a human or technical error that results in sensitive data being lost, destroyed or disclosed. This, unfortunately, can happen in both the public and private sector, often even when all the appropriate measures are in place. For that, you can only act accordingly to the associated risks, for instance by allowing data to protect itself not only through encryption, but through the implementation of a data classification system that restricts access to unauthorised viewers.

Information Security is not a final destination; instead, it is a never-ending journey where everyone from senior management to service desk engineers commits to an ethos in order to protect personal information from loss, leakage and theft in a manner which is proportional to the identified risks.

 

David Cowan, Head of Consulting Services

This article is published on Infosecurity UK: http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/16319/comment-public-vs-private-sector-information-security/

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How many police officers does it take to email 10,000 criminal records to a journalist by accident?

September 16, 2010

Just one. But this is not a joke.

A simple mistake caused by the recipient auto-complete function within an email client resulted in Gwent Police committing what has been referred to as the first major UK data security breach since the new regulations introduced by the Information Commissioner’s Office came into force in April this year. What is of particular interest about this case is that a breach of this scale (10,000 records) and gravity (the data leaked involved personal and sensitive information) occurred within a police environment which allegedly had strict policies and procedures. If that is the case, how were the policies circumvented so that the officer was able to commit this breach, and are security incidents caused by human error ultimately unavoidable?

The elephant in the room is that personal and sensitive data such as criminal records should not have been placed in an excel spreadsheet if strict processes were indeed implemented, not even for internal use. In fact, it is important that organisations dealing with personal, sensitive and confidential data have well-defined information asset classification and media handling procedures. Through the identification and labelling of confidential and sensitive data, all information would be classified based on its value and risk to the organisation in terms of Confidentiality, Integrity or Availability. Criminal records, for instance, would be labelled as private, restricted or confidential depending on the classification marking scheme and would be automatically restricted to only personnel who are authorised to access this information. If a similar scheme had been in place at Gwent Police and the information clearly labelled and controlled, then the breach would have been almost certainly avoided because the data included in the email would not have been accessible by non-authorised personnel.

It is possible, though, that Gwent Police actually had all the tools necessary to protect the data, but lacked the general awareness and training extended to all personnel. Certainly it wouldn’t be the only organisation affected by this issue.  Recent data collected by PricewaterhouseCoopers, illustrates that despite spending more than ever on information security, only half of companies surveyed provide staff with any form of security training, and only  one in five large organisations believe their security policies are very well understood by their employees. The results of the latest Information Security Breaches Survey highlight the need for better education in order to reduce risks, as a striking 92 per cent of firms with over 250 employees and 83 per cent of smaller firms (up to 25 members of staff) admit to have recorded a security incident in the past year.

Lack of awareness, little understanding of the implications and perhaps forgetfulness or stress are the most likely causes of human error, which can result in staff ignoring security measures, such as sending confidential data to their private email address, losing an unencrypted USB device or accidentally sending information to the wrong recipient. It is important to note that in these cases, if the data was correctly labelled and encrypted there wouldn’t be a breach of the Data Protection Act. In most cases, the ICO serves an enforcement notice if there is a failure to comply with the Act and the failure has caused or is likely to cause damage or distress to anyone.  The potential repercussions could include the public disclosure of the facts by the ICO, internal disciplinary actions within the organisation or a fine which, under the new regulations, can amount to £500,000.

Comparison with data collected by PwC in 2008 shows that the cost of cybercrime to the business has doubled to more than £10bn in just two years. The average cost of a breach in a large organisation is now between £280,000 and £690,000 (it was £90,000 – £170,000 two years ago) and due to the increased use of cloud computing, risks are rising rather than diminishing. Although the number of organisations with a formal Information Security policy and sufficient IT security tools has improved, the measures seem to be unable to resolve the greatest threat, the human factor: 46 per cent of large organisations have declared that staff have lost or leaked confidential data, which in 45 per cent of cases resulted in a “very” or “extremely” serious breach of information security.

As this data suggests, even with the most advanced technology in place it is not possible to eradicate risk altogether; however, it is possible to mitigate the damage and prevent mistakes like the one the Gwent police officer made by adopting encryption technology and policies that are emitted from the top and are backed up by disciplinary procedures – but it is extremely important that these are accompanied by extensive training and awareness sessions across the organisation. By educating all members of staff, including trusted partners and 3rd party suppliers, it will help reduce, although not eliminate completely, risks to a level that is acceptable for the organisation, which in the case of large organisations which deal with sensitive information, such as the Police or other public sector organisations, needs to be as low as possible.

David Cowan, Head of Infrastructure and Security

This article has been published on Government & Public Sector Journal: http://www.gpsj.co.uk/view-article.asp?articleid=303

The quest for a portable office – are all mobile devices safe for work?

June 22, 2010

“Free as a bird, is the next best thing to be,” sang the Beatles. This is what modern workers want more and more: they want to be able to work while commuting, on a business trip and at home, even in the middle of the night or at weekends.

Naturally, the need for greater out-of-hours and out-of-office accessibility to work resources has grown with the development of new, smaller and lighter devices that are constantly coming out and gaining ground in the market.

With the choice getting wider by the day, professionals, who are getting more and more tech-savvy, want to be able to have their say when it comes to choosing their mobile devices. They want to be free to use what they like and are used to, for example their own mini Netbook or smart phone, rather than being forced to use machines approved by the IT department, often heavier and less discreet.

Some organisations have considered setting a budget for hardware expenses and allowing each individual to choose their own machine. Although arguably democratic, this move can turn out to be a disaster for two main reasons: firstly, the organisation would need to provide widely skilled, up-to-date support to cover all of the machines; secondly, and most importantly, the trendiest and newest gadgets often present the most risks concerning security.

While iPads and iPhones may appear more attractive than laptops, Blackberry and other handheld mobiles, it is not by chance that they are not popular in the workplace: they are not suited for remote VDI access and lack security lockdown features. Many smartphones were not originally designed for business or corporate use, therefore do not support data encryption. In addition to this, because of their novelty they may be more vulnerable to viruses and hacking. Let’s keep in mind that trendy devices are more eye-catching and at a higher risk of being stolen. If the device is not effectively password-protected and its data encrypted, then the thief will have full access to the crown jewels.

Another risk linked to mobile devices is that the smallest, lightest ones have less storage capacity, therefore users end up transferring and storing data through the use of external devices such as memory sticks, and sometimes other unconventional tools which allow data storage, such as digital cameras memory cards or mp3 players, perhaps to conceal sensitive information. While small devices like memory sticks are easy to lose, the unconventional ones do not provide adequate levels of data protection.

Even with the new Data Protection regulations which came out this year, forcing private companies to declare breaches to the Information Commissioner who is free to make them public, and facing breachers with fines up to £500,000, it still seems that many organisations do not fully understand the need to enhance their security measures. A survey conducted by ICD Research in association with CBR found that organisations are planning to spend 42% more on mobility this year, whilst 36% will spend the same budget as the previous year. However, surprisingly, 61% are planning to spend the same amount of money on security as the year before, and only 28% are going to increase spending in that area. From this data, it appears that although organisations recognise the need for mobile devices and to embrace mobility, they do not completely realise the importance of security, which becomes even more crucial when work is taken outside the office doors.

To be effective, security must work in layers, and protect access equally from the outside and from the inside. Apart from passwords and physical barriers to impede external access, it is important to update antivirus software regularly, especially on the more modern devices, which are typically more vulnerable to bugs and attack by hackers.

It is important as well to allow data to self-protect, in case the previous measures fail to be effective or in the not uncommon case of human error. Only recently, the news came that a police officer emailed some 100,000 criminal records to a journalist by mistake, due to the auto-complete function in his email account. Although human error cannot be automatically prevented, there is a way to save the organisation from a breach of data security, and that is to encrypt all documents, even when they are just sent between co-workers. Data is exposed to risks whilst in transit, attached to emails, when the transmission channel is owned by an external provider.

To insure an enhanced level of security, training should be provided to all members of the organisation, as most breaches happen at end point. A security culture must be introduced with mobility to reduce the attendant risks and, most importantly, a loss of reputation for the whole organisation, and not only the employee responsible for the breach. It is only embracing such measures that mobility, efficiency and security can finally meet.

 

 

Ayodele Soleye, Senior Consultant

Find this article online on Director: http://www.director.co.uk/ONLINE/2010/06_10_ipad_security.html

Public sector, private data – is outsourcing the Service Desk too risky?

June 3, 2010

As the Treasury announce cuts amounting to £6.25bn, £95m of which deriving from a reduction in IT spending, attention is once more directed towards outsourcing as a means to reduce IT expenditure. But Information Technology stores and processes large amounts of personal, sensitive and confidential data, and when it comes to the public sector it can have a very high level of sensitivity, hence a lot of trust is bestowed upon personnel that have access to it. It is already difficult to place confidence in in-house staff, due to the high number of data breaches that are perpetrated by internal staff, backed up by statistics, but the option of off-shore outsourcing elevates the threat level from code yellow to code red.

Widespread use of Cloud computing is unlikely to become a reality in the foreseeable future: strict regulations relating to the Data Protection Act, which the public sector in particular follows religiously, make it virtually impossible to obtain assurances that the data stored outside the organisation’s premises is adequately controlled and kept secure. However, remote access provided to support staff based at another location, be it in the same or another country, still presents a risk in that information can still be collected and recorded. 

With the government CIO, John Suffolk, encouraging the use of outsourcing to countries offering cheaper labour as a cost-cutting strategy, it is time to understand to what extent this can be done and if the public sector can really benefit from off-shoring the Service Desk after all.

Organisations in the public sector are essentially different from private companies: although it seems obvious, it is important to bear in mind that they are funded by British taxpayers, and therefore work for them. However, providing access to personal and sensitive data to companies thousands of miles away and outside the European Union which have different culture, ethics and laws might put the safety of their personal details at risk. For instance, information such as identity, financial and health records can fall into the wrong hands and be used for malicious intent. Not long ago, ITV found that British medical and financial records held abroad could be bought for just a few dollars. No matter how ‘rare’ this event might be, it is not a risk Britons are prepared to take, if the decision were up to them.

It is certainly difficult for organisations in the public sector to carry out a satisfactory level of service when their budgets are being reduced, but it is important to think about the consequences of outsourcing the IT department: a move initially intended to save money can end up making the organisation lose money as a result of large fines and court cases, and most importantly, it can lead to a loss of credibility and reputation.

Recognising a ‘safe’ provider is not easy, especially as identification of a risky supplier often only happens once a breach has been committed, when it might be too late for an organisation to escape liability and to save face. However, it is possible to assess a provider’s trustworthiness before a breach occurs: they should follow Best Practice and have a mature Information Security Management System in line with the ISO 27001 standard, assessed through an independent security review, risk assessment and gap analysis.

There are also better alternatives to extreme or risky versions of outsourcing. For example, the IT department can be kept internal, for better control, but be managed by a third party which is aware of the stringent safety measures necessary for working in this peculiar sector. That said, most information security breaches pertain to threats inside an organisation and are in many cases not a malicious act but a consequence of ignorance, frustration or lack of risk awareness. Well-trained and appropriately-skilled Support staff can reduce these security incidents to a minimum, as would implementing organisational-wide information security awareness sessions.

Management commitment within the industry is especially important to convey the significance of protecting personal and sensitive data and the seriousness of breaching the Data Protection Act, which does not only concern IT staff. Extensive training is necessary to raise awareness across the entire organisation – whenever there is a data breach it is never the provider that suffers the worst consequences, but the organisation’s reputation.

 

David Cowan, Head of Infrastructure and Security

This opinion piece appears in this week’s Dispatch Box on Public Technology: http://www.publictechnology.net/sector/public-sector-private-data-outsourcing-service-desk-too-risky

Is information safe enough at NHS trusts?

April 1, 2010

It looks like NHS trusts are starting to realise that Information Security is not just a matter of using complex passwords, locking drawers at the end of the day and installing the latest firewall and antivirus solutions. The Information Commissioner has been particularly critical of the NHS in the past due to a high proportion of security breaches as a result of inadequate Information Security controls and staff awareness programmes.

The result has been an NHS wide initiative to ensure all removable media including laptops and USB drives are encrypted. However, this may not be enough. As reported by the BBC recently, a remarkable amount of non-medical personnel at UK trusts have access to patient records including recent medical history – at least 100,000 including porters, hospital domestics and IT staff, a Big Brother Watch survey stated.

It seems like the risk is not only from staff at off-shore service providers collecting and selling British data to make a few extra pounds, as reported on ITV not long ago. It also comes from internal personnel who have the potential to access extremely sensitive data without the appropriate authority or preventative controls.

 This is not surprising: data collected in the BIS Information Security Breaches Survey 2009 illustrated that 60 per cent of all companies suffered a security breach in the previous two years and of these, 50 per cent were perpetrated by staff, often premeditated or malicious but in many cases simply a matter of a stolen laptop or lost removal media device.

There is an obvious need for greater awareness of information security regulations across the entire organisation, and measures must be taken to protect personal and sensitive data. Management in particular need to be involved in order to avoid resentment, complacency and to ensure everyone takes the matter seriously.

In the case of the NHS, information at risk is highly sensitive and breaches can have very serious outcomes. Consequences of Data Protection Act breaches are not confined to costly fines and a few employees being fired – it is the organisation’s reputation that suffers the most.

This risk can be mitigated by conducting an independent gap analysis and security review which would assess compliance with Information Security best practice, i.e. ISO27001, IG Toolkit v7, and certify that information held within an organisation is secure, reducing the risk of incidents and the cost to the business.

Equally important are staff awareness sessions to which not only general staff but executive participation is required, which is vital in creating a culture where Information Security is part of the organisation’s DNA.

 

David Cowan, Head of Infrastructure and Security