Disk-o Inferno

As portable devices multiply, maybe it's time to secure the data instead of the device

4:00 PM -- I remember back in the 1980s, everybody was worried about floppy disks. People were loading a whole 1.2 megabytes of sensitive company data on those five-and-a-quarter-inch things and just walking out of the office with it! Then they'd bring the dang things back into the office, stick them in their disk drives, and re-introduce viruses back into the corporate network.

At one company where I worked, they actually asked security guards to go through employees' briefcases on the way out, looking for unauthorized floppy disks.

Nowadays, portable devices are more popular than Boy George or Flock of Seagulls were in the '80s. You can't swing your Billy Idol pants without hitting someone carrying an iPod, a smartphone, or a notebook computer. Yet many companies seem to be just as fearful about devices flying in and out of their enterprises as they were 25 years ago, if not more so.

Earlier this week, Senforce published a study showing that 73 percent of companies surveyed had mission-critical information on thumb drives or notebooks or iPods. Almost half of them still don't have an endpoint security strategy. (See USBs' Giant Sucking Sound.)

The security of portable media was also a hot topic at last week's Storage Networking World conference in San Diego, where a group of panelists said the biggest problem is a lack of security for portable media such as USB drives. (See Users Confess Security Fears.)

My question is why, after 25 years or more of dealing with portable media and devices, are companies still wrestling with this problem? Why are companies still trying to control the way employees carry and use such devices, instead of trying to control the data that goes onto them?

Now, don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying this is a simple problem with an easy fix. Centrally controlling data access is a complex issue, and every company handles it differently. Managing data access means understanding who the user is, what they should be able to download, and how it should be encrypted or otherwise protected. None of these is a simple task.

Having said that, I continue to be amazed at how many IT professionals -- even security professionals -- seem to focus their attention on the devices themselves, rather than the data that's being threatened. Some companies are spending countless hours and resources trying to prevent employees from using iPods on premises, for example, or Apple's iPhone. They make the device out to be the bad guy, when the real issues are employees and data.

In 20 years, the iPod and the thumb drive will probably look as funny as a DeLorean or my old earth shoes. A good security strategy doesn't target a fleeting piece of technology, no matter how popular it gets. Be sure that when your management begins to argue about the security of these "newfangled devices," you steer them to what's really important -- the security of their company's data.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading