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Protecting Brand And Data While Staying Social

Despite worries about social media, most companies are not monitoring it for threats

While businesses continue to expand their use of social networking to manage their brands and increase productivity, only a minority of firms are attempting to offset the risks posed by these services.

The lack of focus on securing social networking is leaving companies vulnerable, say security experts. Only 18 percent of companies do a risk assessment of their use of social media, even though 84 percent worry about the risks, according to a recent survey.

Monitoring is an important part of detecting and responding to the business risks posed by social networks, says Bob Shaw, senior vice president for network-monitoring firm Net Optics, an Ixia company. Companies should monitor what customers are saying about their brands and what employees post under their corporate personas.

"There are no spots of the network that companies can leave as blind spots now," says Shaw. "Businesses have to have visibility across their network and applications, including social media."

Social networks pose three main threats. Because a business' online presence and brand heavily rely on public postings, poor judgment on the part of employees or malicious postings by hacktivists or attackers can sully a company's image. In addition, social networks are also a vector through which attackers can deliver attacks to specific employees. Finally, the networks also pose a data leakage risk, where workers can inadvertently or maliciously leak sensitive information about the company or themselves.

A good first step for most companies is to monitor social networks to gather information on the possible issues facing them and what the threats might be, says Caleb Barlow, director of security for IBM.

"If you are not monitoring both what your employees are saying and what your customers are saying, you run the risk of having your company debated and not having a seat at the table when that happens," he says. Monitoring public posts to social networks can also help catch compromises of social networking accounts, albeit after the thief has caused problems.

While many companies are worried about the leakage of trade secrets or business data, they should also worry about the leakage of personal information about their employees, says Barlow. More than two-third of people share their birthdays online, and almost half reveal their hometowns, he says.

"You start taking all this information, and these are typically the challenge-response questions that protect many types of accounts," Barlow says.

[Phishers favor emails that appear to be from LinkedIn friends or email systems, study says. See Study: Beware LinkedIn Invitations, Mail Delivery Messages.]

Yet the posting of proprietary data to social networking sites is perhaps the greater dangers, says Adam Ghetti, founder and chief technology officer of Ionic Security, which protects data in the cloud. And because they allow people to connect and share information, file-sharing services such as Box and Dropbox are another form of social networking that needs to be watched. When employees post information to those sites, they are adding a social aspect to the problem of data security, he says.

"They have made the data itself social because they have uploaded it to a service where it is out of the view and control of the enterprise," says Ghetti.

Companies need to take a multilayer approach to defending against leaks to social networks and threats coming in from the networks, Ghetti says. Network-based monitoring is not enough because cloud providers are increasingly using SSL to protect communications between the end user and their servers, which makes it difficult for network-only monitoring to inspect the content going to those social networks. Ghetti argues that companies have to take a data-centric approach to protect sensitive information no matter where it goes.

"Monitoring has to happen well before content gets to a social-media destination," says Ghetti. "That monitoring has to take place in a clearly defined way so that it is not intrusive to the end user, it is not violating their privacy or personal life, but it is under the scrutiny of the enterprise when it is in a business context."

Finally, all the security measures should not add extra steps to employees' work processes. Doing so only makes it more likely that the workers will try to work around the security, says Ionic's Ghetti.

"Most circumvention is not maliciously intended -- it's purely just so that users can get their jobs done," he says. "The security process in place is too high-friction, so they go around it, and in doing so, they are leaking information."

Monitoring can give companies visibility while not getting in the way of business, he says.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Robert Lemos is a veteran technology journalist of more than 16 years and a former research engineer, writing articles that have appeared in Business Week, CIO Magazine, CNET, Computing Japan, CSO Magazine, Dark Reading, eWEEK, InfoWorld, MIT's Technology Review, ... View Full Bio

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