Sensitive company data gets released into the wild

If you don't think it's a big challenge to protect sensitive company information and intellectual property, listen to this story.

Trouble Ticket

At issue: A confidential product presentation is available on the Web.

Action plan: Get it off the Internet, and find ways to prevent that sort of thing from happening.

Last week, one of our sales associates visited a customer to review the road map for one of our flagship products. This discussion was to be confidential, so you can imagine the sales associate's consternation when the customer said he had already viewed the presentation on the Web.

He simply searched SlideShare.net, an online community for sharing presentations, and found ours. Access wasn't restricted (though restricting it is an option), so he was able to download it and have a look -- ignoring the "Restricted Use Only" label slapped across it.

The uproar that this situation created reached me quickly, and I was asked to remove the file from SlideShare.

One difficulty with that request was that only the user who uploaded the file could remove it, and that user had uploaded it anonymously, so I couldn't just send him an email and tell him to take it down. I might have been able to get his attention by blogging about the problem, but then we would've been advertising our misstep to the public. I contacted SlideShare and asked that the file be removed, but like most social media and file-sharing sites, it wouldn't act on a request from a third party, even though that third party was the security guy at the company that created the presentation. That left legal action as our last resort; our legal department filed a request through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Because I am a security guy, this turn of events didn't come as a great surprise. Things like this are inevitable in an era of proliferating social media and cloud-based data sharing and storage. I've denied several requests to use the cloud to store corporate data -- I'm not satisfied with the security these services offer -- but reports generated from our firewall show widespread use of these technologies.

Two options

This event, as well as other situations that arise because it's so easy for users to move things to the cloud on their own, can be handled internally in two ways: administratively and technologically.

Administratively, I suggested that the vice president of sales tell his team that whoever uploaded the file must remove it, because it put the organization at risk. I also suggested that our vice president of marketing and public affairs or our legal counsel send a stern message to the entire workforce, stressing the importance of obtaining approval from marketing or public affairs before releasing any nonpublic data to the Internet. Luckily, I've already included these scenarios in a mandatory security awareness training module I recently released.

Technologically, I don't have much to work with, given our current budget and resource constraints, but I will enable URL content filtering rules on our new Palo Alto Networks firewalls to block access to any personal storage sites, with appropriate exceptions. I know that doing this will have a business impact, since certain departments use these sites to disseminate training materials and marketing and sales information to the public. It will take quite a bit of time to minimize the business impact.

The other issue with URL filtering is that it isn't in effect when an employee goes off our network. Of course, laptops can be configured to force all network traffic over a VPN, and software can push URL content filtering rules to each laptop, but those are the sorts of things we can't afford to do. I have data leak prevention in my budget for 2012, and that will help prevent nonpublic data from leaving the company.

But without solid technical controls, we will have to rely on stern words and employees' sense of responsibility.

This week's journal is written by a real security manager, "Mathias Thurman," whose name and employer have been disguised for obvious reasons. Contact him at mathias_thurman@yahoo.com.

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