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Risk

6/23/2006
05:15 AM
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Data Loss Epidemic

Data losses at major corporations and government agencies are being reported almost every day now

1:25 PM -- As an IT security journalist, I'm amazed. As an ordinary consumer, I'm downright frightened.

In the last week alone, five major insurance and financial services companies and one government agency have admitted to losing or exposing the personal information of their customers through lax or careless security behavior. Most of these losses occurred not through the ingenuity of attackers, but through the boneheaded behavior of corporate employees – and, in some cases, their IT departments.

We started off the week with the news that ING had lost the names, Social Security numbers, and other data of 13,000 District of Columbia employees when a laptop was stolen from an ING agent living in the D.C. area. (See DC Workers' Personal Data Stolen.)

The laptop was not password-protected, and the data was not encrypted. That loss came just weeks after a similar theft resulted in the loss of 26.5 million veterans' personal information from a laptop owned by a D.C.-area employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs. (See VA Data Loss Worse Than Expected.)

(Note to myself, a D.C.-area resident: Buy new locks for the doors.)

Then, a day later, insurance giant AIG admitted that a break-in back in March had resulted in the loss of a file server containing personal data on some 970,000 of its customers. The data on the server was not encrypted, and AIG said most of the data shouldn't have been given to the company anyway. (See Thieves Nab AIG Customer Records.)

Was that the end of the wave? Not by a longshot. By Thursday, three more companies – Visa, Wachovia, and Equifax – had notified customers of laptop thefts or security violations that may have resulted in the loss of personal data for thousands more customers.

Aside from the sheer coincidence of these major data losses, the most amazing thing about the week's events is the lack of security policy enforcement that occurred (or didn't occur) to create the problems in the first place: Users walking out of the office with thousands of customer records on completely unprotected laptops; and huge caches of data that were never encrypted – or even known about.

How many more hits do companies have to take before IT wises up and gets tough on enforcing security policies?

Apparently, at least a few more. Many of the companies violated this week said they are only just embarking on policy enforcement and training programs to clean up the problem. Credit card vendors report that as many as 90 percent of retailers still aren't complying with guidelines for securing user credit information. (See Retailers Lag on Security Standard.) This thing is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Before you click to the next page, ask yourself the question: Is my customers' data truly safe? The answer may amaze you – or even frighten you.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

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