Tech Insight: Keeping Your Thumb on Thumb Drives

Those little USB drives certainly are handy, but how do you keep your company's sensitive data from walking away? Here are a few ideas

Every time it begins to seem safe to read the news again, there’s a new security breach report: Another company is reporting the potential exposure of customers' personal data as a result of the loss or theft of a laptop, backup tape, or external drive. You'd think all these reports would teach companies a lesson, but it’s apparent that most companies must learn that lesson firsthand -- by experiencing it themselves.

While laptop thefts are reported nearly every day, it's unusual to hear about the loss of portable USB storage devices (thumb drives). Is that because enterprises have learned to secure them properly? Or is it because thumb drives are nearly impossible to track, and most companies have no idea when they have been lost or stolen?

There's no easy way to answer that question, but it is worth noting that there are technologies, both hardware and software, which are helping enterprises to secure data stored on thumb drives. These technologies differ in effectiveness and transparency to the user, but in the end, securing data at rest on thumb drives isn't rocket science -- and it can be done on an enterprise level or in an ad hoc fashion.

Thumb drive manufacturers have been including “security” software on their products for a couple of years, but the functionality has been limited, and typically only provides basic encryption of files stored on the device. Last year, we saw more sophisticated thumb drives that perform file encryption at the hardware level -- such as the eye-catching IronKey -- but the cross-platform functionality and read/write speeds vary greatly, as we saw in the recent reviews from Information Week. Only a few thumb drives offer enterprise-level management features.

Some organizations are attempting to secure their data by completely disallowing all thumb drives, but that isn't a decision that many organizations are ready to make -- there are many legitimate uses for these little babies. The real question is how to secure the data that the users place on the drives -- not how to prevent data from being written to the drive.

One solution is to take a hybrid approach, using a software product that only allows usage of thumb drives with pre-defined serial numbers in conjunction with an IronKey to handle the encryption. Some antivirus suites, like Symantec's Endpoint Protection (SEP) 11, already offer this type of capability. Pair that control with company-issued IronKeys (or a similar product), and you can almost eliminate the panic that's caused by the accidental exposure of these devices (provided the user didn't write the password on the device).

One disadvantage of the IronKey products: They aren't cheap. If your users are prone to losing thumb drives, a smarter investment might be to purchase cheaper thumb drives and rely on a software-only solution to handle the security. Lumension Security Sanctuary Device Control and Credant Mobile Guardian for External Media are two solutions that can transparently encrypt data that is copied to thumb drives -- without any special hardware or interaction from the user.

If you're on a very tight budget -- and if you have a high level of trust in your users and don’t need an enterprise solution -- cheap thumb drives and the open-source TrueCrypt technology could be the way to go. Once you've trained your users and done the initial setup, the data stored in encrypted TrueCrypt volumes on the thumbdrives would be secure -- and you've got a solution that works equally well for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X.

Each of these approaches has its own pros and cons, depending on the level of user interaction you need, the hardware and software costs you can afford, and the centralized management capabilities you require. As with most security solutions, when it comes to protecting sensitive information from accidental disclosure, there definitely is no "one size fits all."

If you aren't doing any of these approaches, though, take a closer look at all of them and make a move soon. It's a lot cheaper to implement portable drive security than it is to notify thousands of customers that their data has been breached.

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  • Credant Technologies
  • IronKey Inc.
  • Lumension Security
  • Symantec Corp. (Nasdaq: SYMC)
  • Editors' Choice
    Kelly Jackson Higgins 2, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading