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Risk

6/17/2008
05:56 PM
George V. Hulme
George V. Hulme
Commentary
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There's Value In Data Leak Prevention

Richard "IDS Is Dead" Stiennon is back to his absolutist ways. This time he is aiming (again) at the DLP space.

Richard "IDS Is Dead" Stiennon is back to his absolutist ways. This time he is aiming (again) at the DLP space.Over at his Stiennon On Security Blog, he published the post "Don't Think Data Leak Prevention technology will stop data leaks.":

I pointed out before that data leak prevention is impossible. There are just too many ways for a determined data thief to walk out the door with your most sensitive information.

His example is the recent case where some ninny at MI5 allegedly left top secret documents on a train in the U.K., where they were later located left unattended. Actually, there were two such incidents. Now, any way you slice these incidents it turns out bad. And those responsible were (I hope) breaking clearly defined policies not to carry such documents around town.

More than 20 years ago I was personally fired from an assistant manager's position for leaving a safe unlocked, overnight, with $200 cash in it. The district manager came into the store, and found the safe. I admitted to the neglect, and was fired. And I deserved to be fired. From then on, I learned how to read and follow policy.

I'm not sure why being so lax with confidential documents relating to Iraq and al-Qaeda shouldn't, at the very minimum, result in a public flogging and firing. But I digress.

Back to "Don't Think Data Leak Prevention technology will stop data leaks."

From his post:

With all those paper documents being used to run the intelligence service of England it is surprising there are not more incidents like this. Am I recommending more use of electronic documents? Definitely not, they will just fall into the hands of the Chinese.

All I am saying is that no leak prevention solution will stop leaks. You can curtail the wholesale loss of data though e-mail, and file transfers, but you will not stop executives from leaving printed documents in taxi cabs or airplanes.

So every protected electronic file is going to end up in China? And no data leak prevention solution will stop leaks? OK: let's just give up on technological mitigating controls and policy enforcement. They don't stop anything.

I've news. Hear this: it's the rare security product that will stop any type of breach, in the absolute sense. Security is about risk mitigation, not absolute safety from bad things happening.

Calling DLP impossible is little more than a cheap shot at the DLP market.

Consider the following headlines:

Door Locks Don't Stop Burglaries Vitamins Don't Stop Illness Safes Don't Stop Theft Seat-Belts Don't Stop Automobile Fatalities

Each of these things have value, but they don't (completely) stop anything. They reduce risk, and they stop enough bad things from happening that they're worthwhile. Door locks aren't about making it impossible for your home to be robbed. And no one argued (that I'm aware) that seat belts would bring the end to deadly accidents. It's about lowering your risk for these potentialities. And if you want to further reduce the risk of a home being robbed, one adds more mitigating controls: alarms, dogs, cameras, and armed guards. Maybe you could add nukes with tripwires at the perimeter.

But, oh no, wait a minute. None of those things will stop the risk of burglary. There could always be someone who doesn't care about getting caught, with more guns and a helicopter -- a more powerful adversary who outwits the designed defenses. And maybe, one day, someone would forget to turn the alarm on. It's just impossible.

So maybe I should have protested, so long ago, to my district manager at that retail store that he shouldn't fire me. I mean, locked safes don't stop theft. Someone could always crack the combination, watch the combo being entered, grab the money while it was open, or even force employees at gun-point to open it. It's just impossible to stop the money in that safe from being stolen.

But I suspect that would be missing the point.

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