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Today's Reminder: The Greatest Threats To Your Data May Be On Your Payroll

The steady stream of customer data breaches that have plagued financial services firms, consumer data clearing houses, and universities this year have put IT departments on alert to the vulnerability of sensitive information. Yet the bulk of reactions have centered on fortifying companies against hackers and other unwelcome intruders. Too many companies have ignored what is perhaps the greatest threat to data secu
The steady stream of customer data breaches that have plagued financial services firms, consumer data clearing houses, and universities this year have put IT departments on alert to the vulnerability of sensitive information. Yet the bulk of reactions have centered on fortifying companies against hackers and other unwelcome intruders. Too many companies have ignored what is perhaps the greatest threat to data security: employees.It's with that oversight in mind that data security expert Doug Jacobson, founder of Palisade Systems and professor of computer engineering at Iowa State University, has come up with a top-10 list of tips for protecting sensitive data from employees. Jacobson, whose company designs software that prevents private data from leaving a company's network, emphasizes that most employee-caused breaches are due to ignorance rather than maliciousness. "Unless we educate our employees on what's right and wrong, they won't know what to protect," he says.

Most employees are clear about protecting obvious confidential data, such as social security numbers or credit card numbers, but they may not realize that something like an internal customer number poses a threat because of the ease with which it can be cross-referenced to access additional information. Further complicating things is the pace with which emails are repeatedly forwarded without regard to private information that might be revealed in the original message. "The way in which we effortlessly move data around the Internet is making this problem much more difficult," says Jacobson. "It's so easy to move information, and it's only going to get easier."

That's why it's critical that companies stop relying on security and content-protection technologies and adopt the most detailed data-protection procedures they can for their employees. To get them started, here's a list of 10 things Jacobson recommends:

1) Know what customer data you're collecting, and why. 2) Take stock of what private customer data employees have access to. 3) Understand how employees can send customer data outside your company (via network, laptops, PDAs, backup transport). 4) Develop data-protection policies and make certain employees understand what constitutes private data. 5) Educate your employees on properly handling private data as well as keeping their computers free of security threats. 6) Make sure clients are aware of your company's methodology for protecting confidential data. 7) Hire a third party to perform an annual audit of your security practices. 8) Adopt a multi-layered security strategy to protect private data that includes access control enforcement and private content protection. 9) Track where your customers' sensitive data is being sent to. Consider purchasing IP address-verification technology. 10) Encrypt customer data being transmitted or stored on a network.

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