Sidestepping the analog hole

Even the most sophisticated digital security measures can't ignore our analog human nature

On an episode of “The West Wing,” deputy national security adviser Kate Harper (Mary McCormack) reprimands presidential assistant Debbie Fiderer (Lily Tomlin) for displaying the president’s schedule on her computer screen. As Harper correctly points out, anybody could walk into the office and find out something they shouldn’t know.

Life imitates art. The other day, driving past our local YMCA, I saw a woman crossing the street.

That woman’s name is such-and-such and she’s 69 years old, I said to my wife.

How did I know that? I shouldn’t have, but the YMCA’s new identification system -- a bar code scanner -- displays the account record of the most recently authenticated patron on a screen that’s visible to anybody who walks in the door. The information shown there includes name, photo, and date of birth.

The Motion Picture Association of America  has a name for this kind of information leakage: “the analog hole.” The movie and music industries aren’t the only ones plagued by the need to render digital information into analog form. Until we’re all retrofitted with input jacks -- or, let’s get real, wireless receivers -- we humans, with our legacy analog-only sensoriums, represent a terrible security risk.

Lately I’ve been running into lots of examples of this problem. I try to avert my ears when the hospital receptionist verbally confirms the personal data and medical circumstances of the person ahead of me in line. The receptionist’s access to that data may have been audited as per HIPAA requirements (though I suspect that it wasn’t), but there it is in plain earshot, pouring out of the analog hole.

Likewise, I try to avert my eyes when the person sitting next to me on the plane opens a laptop and displays a confidential memo. It may have been transmitted over a secure link (though it probably wasn’t), and it may be encrypted on disk (though it probably isn’t), but there it is in plain view, pouring out of the analog hole.

In the entertainment realm, there’s no real solution to this problem. Movies have to be seen, songs have to be heard. But in the enterprise realm, we can sometimes -- maybe often -- rethink the protocols that result in analog leaks.

Selective release is one useful strategy. The YMCA attendant doesn’t need to see a complete account record every time a patron authenticates. A binary Yes or No is all that’s required, with a link to the full record to accommodate those few cases where it’s needed.

Alternate modes are another useful strategy. The day before a scheduled visit, the hospital could e-mail me a link to a secure data-verification application. This method won’t work for everybody, but a growing number of patients can use it and will prefer it. Every transaction conducted in this alternate mode is one that won’t leak out the analog hole.

When we can’t sidestep the hole, we have to look for ways to close it. To defeat the airplane shoulder surfer, for example, you could use a privacy filter to minimize your screen’s effective viewing angle. But I’ve never heard much about those products, never used one myself, and never seen one in use by an airplane or train seatmate. Are they too expensive? Too awkward to use? (Those are great questions for an InfoWorld reviewer to answer.)

In the end, though, your supersecret deal sheet is something that you probably shouldn’t be reading on a plane, or discussing on your cell phone.