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E-mail Causes Most Enterprise Data Loss

Breaches associated with social media, video sharing, blogs are also on the rise, finds Proofpoint study.

Alison Diana

August 30, 2010

5 Min Read

8 Strategic Security Survey: Global Threat, Local Pain

Strategic Security Survey: Global Threat, Local Pain

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Strategic Security Survey: Global Threat, Local Pain

Although e-mail continues to be the primary source of data-loss risk at enterprises, the number of data-loss events associated with social media tools -- and related disciplinary actions -- continues to grow, a new study found.

In fact, 35% of large enterprises have investigated a leak of confidential, sensitive, or proprietary data via e-mail in the past year, according to a study of 261 large businesses by Osterman Research for Proofpoint. And 25% of the U.S. companies surveyed had looked into the exposure of such information via a blog or message board, compared with 18% in 2009, the study found.

One-fifth of businesses looked into similar postings on a social networking site such as Facebook or LinkedIn, according to the report. Last year, 17% of enterprises took this step, the study found. In addition, 18% of U.S. enterprises investigated postings on media-sharing sites such as YouTube and Vimeo, while 17% looked into data exposure on SMS text or web-based short message systems such as Twitter, according to Proofpoint.

In many cases, companies responded to these investigations with disciplinary actions against an employee for violating corporate policy. For example, 24% of companies disciplined an employee for violating blog or message board policies, and 11% terminated an employee for this violation, the study found. One-fifth disciplined an employee for using a social networking site to violate company policies, and 7% took the step of firing an employee, according to the report. In addition, 21% of businesses polled disciplined an employee for exposing data via a media-sharing site, and 9% of companies let an employee go because of these actions, the survey said.

"Enterprise IT professionals are faced with trying to minimize data loss risks across an ever-growing number of channels. And for every high-profile data loss event you see in the mainstream media, there are many more that you never hear about. Employees should also be aware of these concerns, the policies their employers have put around electronic communications, and the serious consequences for violating those policies," said Keith Crosley, director of market development at Proofpoint.

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Budget constraints are hurting corporations' data-loss prevention efforts, 58% of respondents said. And 48% of those polled blame layoffs for creating an increased risk of data leakage, the study found. Perhaps as a direct result, 21% -- compared with 18% -- had investigated a suspected leak associated with an employee leaving the business, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, according to Proofpoint.

"The level of concern and anxiety about corporate data loss is on the rise, and the recession has only increased the pressure on companies to enforce corporate e-mail and social media policies. It's no longer just an IT department concern," said Gary Steele, CEO of Proofpoint. "We're seeing C-level executives and management paying attention as data loss becomes a very real, public threat to companies."

Regulatory issues concern many enterprises: 74% of respondents are "concerned" or "very concerned" about ensuring compliance with financial disclosure and corporate governance regulations, while 72% are equally worried about protecting the confidentiality of personal identity and financial information in outbound e-mail, the study found. Following close behind, 71% of those surveyed were "concerned" or "very concerned" about making certain that employees or ex-workers cannot use e-mail to disseminate company trade secrets or intellectual property, and ensuring that workers cannot use e-mail to share confidential internal memos.

Many businesses have taken steps to protect private information, with 65% using technologies to detect spam and malware in e-mail, the study found. Fifty-four percent use technology for e-mail archiving, and 48% perform regular audits of outbound e-mail content, according to the report. Enterprises use other technologies, including automatic encryption; software that detects private financial or health data in e-mails; and software that detects intellectual property in outbound e-mail, the study said.

In addition, 37% of companies surveyed employ people who monitor outbound e-mail content, while 33% have staff whose primary or exclusive job is to read or analyze outbound e-mail, Proofpoint said.

To protect corporate data from the newer threat of social media sites, a number of enterprises enacted outright bans on their use. Indeed, 63% bar the use of P2P file-sharing sites; 53% ban Facebook; a similar number outlaw media-sharing sites like YouTube; and 49% prohibit the use of Twitter, the study found. In addition, 40% block employee use of personal webmail; 39% bar the use of personal websites; 38% ban personal use of corporate e-mail during work hours; and 31% prohibit employees' use of LinkedIn, according to Proofpoint.

Corporations have taken other steps, including acceptable use policies for e-mail, blogs, and other postings; ethics policies; and social media policies, the study showed.

About the Author(s)

Alison Diana

Contributing Writer

Alison Diana is an experienced technology, business and broadband editor and reporter. She has covered topics from artificial intelligence and smart homes to satellites and fiber optic cable, diversity and bullying in the workplace to measuring ROI and customer experience. An avid reader, swimmer and Yankees fan, Alison lives on Florida's Space Coast with her husband, daughter and two spoiled cats. Follow her on Twitter @Alisoncdiana or connect on LinkedIn.

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