Perimeter

12/15/2012
11:59 AM
Wendy Nather
Wendy Nather
Commentary
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You Are The Big Data

Monitoring isn't just about systems anymore

As the art and science of security monitoring have grown, so has the trend that the subject of the monitoring is people.

I’m not just talking about buying habits and the infamous story of Target, which figured out that a teenager was pregnant before her father did. And I’m not including discussions about governments monitoring dissident activity and capturing citizen data within or outside of the bounds of law. It has become much bigger than that.

I’ve given talks before about how government accountability conflicts with citizen privacy: If you want to know in extreme detail how well your government is delivering services, then you’ll end up with that detail being about the individual citizens who receive those services. All sorts of entities today are using big data techniques, ostensibly to improve their offerings. But that’s a double-edged sword: Not only does the ability to store more data mean more persistent data, it also means more wrong data.

My insurance company monitors what medications I receive, obviously. But the conclusions it draws aren’t always correct. I was prescribed a drug that is intended to treat heart issues, but is also very commonly used off-label to treat a minor, unrelated medical symptom. As a result, all my communications from the insurance company now include cheery newsletters about heart health, and numerous congratulations about my managing my heart disease. Do I correct their mistake? Or is it better for me to let them stay confused about my actual condition?

I once applied for a loan using my parents’ address when I was staying with them while house-hunting. Thanks to data sharing, several entities out there think my parents are now living with me at my current address. (I even get junk mail for my parents’ cat, which has been dead nearly 20 years.) Is wrong data a danger, or is it a form of protective camouflage?

The big data trend now also allows more context around monitoring, analyzing events against combinations of other factors. My employer might implement access control that is based on a risk score derived from my login name, my organizational function, my geolocation, the kind of device I’m using for access, the time of day, and what I did during my past five sessions. This is intended to detect intruders, of course, and even insider fraud; it also means that my employer is monitoring where I am and whether I’m using my own phone or tablet. It might even include checking where I’ve browsed lately from that device, or what other applications I’m running on it.

Does a company have the right to collect data about its employees that is not resulting from or generated by the actual work they’re performing? Does it have the right to retain that information permanently, after the employment relationship is terminated? If you change employers frequently, then does that mean you’ll have multiple organizations researching all of your public data on the Internet and keeping tabs on your online activities, all in the name of analyzing their own risk?

We've gotten better about profiling and monitoring behavior, rather than just network traffic and computing states. But that means we’ve gotten better at monitoring ourselves. As we draw closer to a state of precision, it means we have to worry even more about accuracy. How much do we want to keep, for how long, and how important is it that the data be correct?

When you’re considering your enterprise security monitoring options, take time to think about how that data collection could be used on you, personally -- even after you leave. We’re at that tipping point now.

Wendy Nather is Research Director of the Enterprise Security Practice at the independent analyst firm 451 Research. You can find her on Twitter as @451wendy.

Wendy Nather is Research Director of the Enterprise Security Practice at independent analyst firm 451 Research. With over 30 years of IT experience, she has worked both in financial services and in the public sector, both in the US and in Europe. Wendy's coverage areas ... View Full Bio

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