E-mail answers

A few weeks ago, in a story about Tom Whittington, CIO for California's Contra Costa County, and a glitch in an e-mail address book that sent hundreds of messages with confidential information to a company in Sweden over a two-year period, I asked what he -- and the rest of us -- can do to keep something like that from happening again. Here's a sampling of the responses.

  • We do not send sensitive data in e-mails. Instead, we save data in restricted-access folders on an internal server and send a link to the file in the e-mail. If the recipient of the e-mail is authorized to receive sensitive e-mails, he will already have the credentials required to access the folder.
  • Some companies block all outbound attachments except to whitelisted organizations. It allows e-mail traffic, just not attachments.
  • What the County could have done was monitor all it outgoing mail with a program that scanned for keywords. It could have then embedded keywords in its Word and Excel documents that contained personal information.
  • The easiest solution may be to tag nonsensitive e-mail at the source and disallow e-mail directed outside the private network that does not carry the requisite tag.
  • 1) Never send sensitive data via e-mail. 2) When you break Rule 1, encrypt the data. Any other system is broken by design, is it not?
  • Financial data and private employee information should never be sent through public e-mail without being encrypted. You can write procedures to automate the process in Perl on both Windows and Unix platforms, and you can probably do it in VBScript on Windows. The platform isn't the issue; it's a matter of thinking through a process instead of clicking through it.
  • The financial information and personal information should have been sent as an attachment that was created in an application that can password-protect the information.
  • If there's a technological solution, I'd be surprised. If I were Whittington, I'd be investigating why all the Swedish e-mails warning about the problem were ignored. Looks to me like a cultural issue: lots of employees thinking it's someone else's problem.
  • I think the issue is the political environment. When the replies arrived, either the employees didn't know who to notify or they were afraid to say anything, or someone wanted power and control over IT. Unless you have witnessed it, you cannot even begin to comprehend the level of turf fighting that occurs in large governmental agencies, and it's not just with IT.

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