Archive for the ‘Public sector IT’ 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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Data security: controlling the risks – The EGB Masterclass

February 23, 2011

by Dan Jellinek, E-Government Bulletin

David Cowan

Public sector information security breaches often hit the headlines, but are public bodies really any worse than private sector in this area? What are the main risks, now and in a future of ‘any time, any place’ access to systems through cloud computing, and how can they best be tackled? We ask David Cowan (pictured), Head of Consulting at IT services provider Plan-Net.

Q: What are the main areas of risk for public bodies in keeping their data secure?

A: Public bodies are subjected to a plethora of regulations, standards and frameworks on data security due to the nature of the information they hold, and the associated risks of handling the sheer volume of personal or sensitive data. The main areas of risk are staff failing to observe the organisation’s information security procedures; malicious activity from both internal and external sources such as staff unlawfully selling or obtaining personal data and external threats from fraud, or from crime syndicates or rogue groups using ‘phishing’ or social engineering; and organisations and staff not being aware of their legal obligations, such as the legal obligation to report an information security breach under the Data Protection Act.

Q: What is the scale of risk faced by public bodies?

A: It is difficult to quantify the scale of the risk, but even with all the controls, standards and regulations in place to reduce risk, it is still not possible to eradicate it altogether. The size and geographical spread of public sector organisations increases the risk of data leakage and malicious activity occurring, as does the reliance on recording personal information within huge databases across the public services.

Q: What are the potential consequences of security breaches?

A: The greatest risk to an organisation is the potential reputational damage which could occur as a result of an information security incident reaching the public domain. The Information Commissioner’s Office is now empowered to hand out large fines of up to £500,000 for serious breaches of the Data Protection Act, and there is the possibility of criminal prosecution depending on the severity and scale of the breach. Public bodies could even lose access to public sector frameworks and IT networks as a result of a perceived systematic breakdown in their processes and procedures. The impact on individuals and society could include a lack of trust in public sector organisations handling their personal information; loss of productivity; and individual distress or harm caused by a breach.

(Read the rest of this interview on E-Government Bulletin issue 329: http://www.headstar.com/egblive/?p=771 )

Surviving IT spending cuts in the public sector

February 15, 2011

How to create cost-efficiencies in the post-Spending Review scenario

After the announcement of 25%-40% budget cuts last year, it is reasonable to expect IT to be one of the departments to suffer the most in public sector organisations. However, cuts in IT support and projects may bring inefficiencies and disruptions, which can then lead to real losses and increasing costs.  More than ever, CIOs and IT Directors at public sector organisations are taking various options into consideration, from quick-fixes to farther-sighted ideas, trying to find a solution that will produce savings without compromising on service quality and data security, and perhaps even increasing efficiency. Here are some common ideas analysed:

Solution 1: Reducing headcount

Firing half of your IT team will produce immediate savings since you will not have to pay them a salary the following months, but when Support staff is insufficient or not skilled enough to meet the organisation’s needs it can lead to excessive downtime, data loss, security breaches or the inability to access applications or the database. A ‘quick-fix’ such as this represents a false economy. Reviewing resource allocation and improving skill distribution at Service Desk level, on the other hand, can be a valid solution. Indeed many IT departments can find themselves top heavy with expert long serving team members where the knowledge supply out-weighs the demand. A larger proportion of lower-cost 1st line engineers with improved and broader skills and a fair reduction of the more deeply skilled and costly 2nd and 3rd line technicians can not only reduce staff spend, but also create efficiencies with more calls being solved with first-time fix.

Solution 2: Offshoring

Although the thought of employing staff who only ask for a small percentage of a normal UK salary may sound appealing, offshoring is not as simple as ABC. It requires a large upfront investment to set up the office abroad, with costs including hardware, software, office supplies and travel and accommodation of any personnel that manages the relationship with the supplier. Organisations are not able to afford that kind of investment, especially since this solution only creates cost-savings in the long term – but the public sector needs cost savings now. Furthermore, the different culture and law can represent a risk to information security: data could be easily accessed by staff in a country thousands of miles away and sold for a couple of dollars, as various newspapers and TV channels have found out. With the extreme sensitivity of data processed by Councils, charities and the NHS, no matter how hard foreign suppliers try to convince the public sector to offshore their IT, it is unlikely this will happen – it is simply too risky.

Solution 3: IT Cost Transparency

Understanding the cost of IT and its value to the organisation, being able to prioritise and manage people and assets accordingly and knowing what can be sacrificed, can help identify where money is being wasted, which priorities need to be altered and what can be improved. For instance, do all employees need that piece of software if only three people actually use it more than twice a year, and do you need to upgrade it every year? Do all incidents need to be resolved now, or can some wait until the more urgent ones are dealt with? Do you need a printer in each room, and when it breaks do you need to buy a new one or could you make do with sharing one machine with another room? These and many other questions will lead to more efficient choices, but only after having identified and assessed the cost and value of each aspect of IT, including people and assets.

Solution 4: Cloud computing

There are contrasting opinions on this matter. The Government CIO, John Suffolk encourages the use of this service, and reckons that the public sector would be able to save £1.2bn by 2014 thanks to this solution. However, many believe that placing data in the hands of a service provider can be risky due to the highly sensitive nature of the data involved, so traditional Cloud computing may not be an ideal solution.

A shared environment such as the G-cloud, where various public sector organisation share private data centres or servers, may be a safer option that allows the public sector to achieve major efficiencies and cost savings, while minimising issues related to data security.

Solution 5: Shared Services

A shared service desk is not for everyone – it can only work if the organisations sharing have similar needs, culture and characteristics, and as IT can be a strategic advantage for competitive businesses, sharing the quality may mean losing this advantage. But for the public sector, this solution may be ideal. Local councils with the same functions, services and needs will be able to afford a higher level of service for a reasonable price, sharing the cost and the quality.

Solution 6: Service Management Good Practice

‘Doing more with less’ is one of the most used quotes since the recession started. And it is exactly what the public sector is looking for. Public organisations don’t want to be ITIL-aligned, obtain certifications, and tick the boxes. All they want is efficiency and cost savings – and through the right Service Management moves, after an Efficiency Review to find out what needs improvement and how, this can be obtained through the right choices regarding people, processes and technology.

Solution 7: Managed Services

A solution where the IT Service Desk is kept internal with its assets owned by the company, but managed by a service provider is becoming more and more popular among organisations from all sectors. When the sensitivity of data and a desire for a certain level of control over IT rules out full outsourcing, but in-house management does not allow to reach potential cost savings and efficiencies, a managed service may represent the ideal ‘in-between’ choice. The post-Spending Review public sector, then, may benefit from a flexible solution that is safer than outsourcing, but more cost-effective than an in-house solution.

Every challenge can be a new opportunity

Although budget reduction may affect investment in large IT projects and shiny new technology, it also represents the ideal opportunity to analyse what is essential and what is not, and to prioritise projects based on this. The public sector, then, find itself prioritising for effectiveness over compliance, cost-efficiency over cheapness and experience over offers, when choosing providers and tools for their IT. This will lead to the choice of solutions that will help organisations run more smoothly and safely, invest their resources better and, ultimately, deliver a service that will bring maximum customer and user satisfaction.

Martin Hill, Head of Support Operations

(also on Business Computing World: http://www.businesscomputingworld.co.uk/how-to-create-cost-efficiencies-in-the-post-spending-review-scenario/)

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

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