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Perimeter

3/16/2009
03:35 PM
John H. Sawyer
John H. Sawyer
Commentary
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Netbooks A Source Of Data Leaks If Not Properly Supported

The eWeek article "Netbooks Offer Hackers Easy Access to Data" caught my eye. It's a couple of weeks old, but the message is no less clear.

The eWeek article "Netbooks Offer Hackers Easy Access to Data" caught my eye. It's a couple of weeks old, but the message is no less clear.The author and various security experts are claiming that netbooks -- low-powered subnotebooks usually with screen sizes 10 inches or less -- are targets for hackers looking to steal data.

I'd immediately agree taken in the context that hackers are buying netbooks because they're small, cheap, and hackable. Custom Linux distributions have already been created that are easy to install and boot from USB flash drives or the built-in SD card readers found in several models. HD Moore has spoken about his "evil" Eee PC on the Risky Business Podcast, and I've heard that everyone at Shmoocon was walking around with a netbook in hand. But that's not what the eWeek article was about.

The security experts and author claim that because the machines are designed with lower performance in mind, they can't efficiently run security applications, like antivirus and firewalls, for protection. Add in some clueless users, and you have a recipe for data leakage disaster.

At first, I was on the fence about the article's argument, but now I agree to some extent. Netbooks were not designed for corporate environments. They started off as Linux-only, with the purpose of Web surfing, email, and video chat. When manufacturers ran into the problem that customers didn't understand Linux but started wanting Linux, they succumbed to the demand and opened the door to insecurity.

That's not to say security applications can't be used on netbooks. They can, but maybe not as all-in-one suites that hook every system action, which leads to slower OS performance. If corporate IT shops must support netbooks, then they must force all drives to use whole disk encryption, install a VPN client that must be used for all Internet activity, filter the traffic through a proxy as it comes back to the corporate office, and monitor it with the IDS.

And they must use the built-in Windows Firewall and some sort of antivirus software. Oh, and ban all sensitive data from being stored on these devices. It's not hard to protect data if you want to -- it's just a matter of balancing user productivity and functionality with security measures to a level of risk that your company is willing to accept.

John H. Sawyer is a senior security engineer on the IT Security Team at the University of Florida. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are his own and do not represent the views and opinions of the UF IT Security Team or the University of Florida. When John's not fighting flaming, malware-infested machines or performing autopsies on blitzed boxes, he can usually be found hanging with his family, bouncing a baby on one knee and balancing a laptop on the other. Special to Dark Reading.

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