The struggle to protect enterprise data

The problem of enterprise data protection is so big, companies have just begun wrapping their arms around it. Here’s how they’re discovering their vulnerabilities, and what they’re doing about them

Long ago, when businesses kept sensitive information locked away in file cabinets and safes, it was relatively cheap and easy to store valuable data and control who had access to it. Today, enterprises invest millions in security, storage, and compliance technologies -- all in the name of increasing visibility into where vital electronic information lives and how it is being defended.

Despite those efforts, most experts and customers admit that in most companies the process of tracking down every piece of valuable company data -- and applying the appropriate tools to shield information from unwanted access or misuse -- remains in its beginning stages.

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The heart of the matter is visibility. Enterprises feel uncertain whether today’s technologies are providing an accurate sense of where things stand or are merely creating a false sense of security.

Seeing blind spots

When forensic experts called in by businesses to investigate external data breaches and insider threats tell their stories, the traumatic events that lead to brand-trashing headlines and regulatory punishment are most often based in the business’ lack of knowledge of where its sensitive data is.

Enterprises are improving their ability to safeguard the stockpiles of sensitive information they know about, admit investigators, but many remain blind to additional stores of important data or the flawed processes they use to transmit information electronically. Both problems leave them vulnerable to leaks and attacks.

"In almost every case we've investigated where companies have experienced a serious data breach, the reality is that the companies didn't know they had the information where it was stolen from until it's too late and the data has been taken," says Bryan Sartin, vice president of investigative response at Cybertrust, a provider of managed security services that lists risk assessment among its specialties.

"We end up telling companies where they store their sensitive data after doing forensics when they've already had a breach," Sartin says. "In some cases it's clear that companies are only doing the bare minimum in terms of protection before one of these incidents, but the truth is that even with companies that are employing a lot of sound technologies and process they're still missing a lot of the important data repositories."

Making the job of such professionals even more difficult, Sartin says that clever hackers are already using anti-forensics techniques to hide their footprints and make it harder for investigators to trace ongoing data theft schemes.

Other security breach experts agree that businesses seem overwhelmed by the task of hunting down and protecting valued information.

"It's not that good companies aren't making an effort in this area; it just seems that they can't seem to find a way to locate the information and manage it in a way that allows them to do business and guard the data from every conceivable threat," says Kevin Mandia, chief executive of security service provider Mandiant.

"Even worse, in many companies it's clear that they are doing the bare minimum to try and meet regulatory demands for data protection, or simply to prove that they're doing enough to avoid having to report a breach publicly when it happens," he says.

The perils of self-diagnosis

In survey results to be published on June 25, analysts at Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) found that one third of the 102 large companies they interviewed admitted a loss of sensitive data in the previous year, with another 11 percent uncertain whether or not their data stores had been violated.

In a nod to the challenge of engaging security processes that go beyond protecting networks from outside attacks, 58 percent of the IT workers surveyed by ESG say they believe that the most significant threat to their sensitive information comes from insiders, through both malicious and careless activity.

"The good news is that we are finding that people are recognizing the problem around identifying, protecting, and classifying confidential data and intellectual property, and are willing to dedicate more money to those efforts, but the bad news is that this is still very much a manual process," says Jon Oltsik, the ESG analyst who authored the report (which was sponsored by data protection technology vendor Reconnex).

"Many companies clearly believe they are doing a good job, but the evidence of breaches and holes in their processes leads you to believe that there are many inaccurate delusions out there," Oltsik says.

"When you dig a little deeper and show them what type of data is stored on people's desktops and on file servers, most companies are surprised at the size of the problem," says the analyst. "The common thread in these companies is a lack of cooperation between different business constituencies. It is not just an IT problem, or a legal problem, or a business problem; and unless people view it as a corporatewide problem, their situation isn't going to improve."

IT consultants who are helping enterprises solve these problems concede that even the best companies are struggling to comprehend the scale of the data security issue.

As the volumes of information being maintained by large companies continue to grow exponentially -- in some case driven by compliance regulations such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and HIPAA -- businesses are challenged to stay abreast of the issue and gain true visibility into their operations.

"In general we find that companies have applied a lot of great technologies and feel that they are secure, but there's a general problem of not having enough of a budget to invest in even more tools that can be used to dig down further and gain better visibility into their operations," says Steve Suther, a senior information risk strategist at IT consultancy Getronics.

Before joining Getronics, Suther served as director of information security management at credit card giant American Express. Data security was a "huge problem" for Amex during his decade there, Suther says, as the company tried to protect itself and its customers while dealing with millions of service providers and merchants who processed its information and accessed its records.

Policing business partners is a monster challenge on its own. "One of the hardest areas to enforce your own information risk management programs, no matter how sound, is with third parties; even when companies can effectively map out all their internal business processes and identify who controls what,” Suther says. “It's still very difficult to get information about processes employed by third parties that may be touching the data."

Making progress

Despite all the hurdles, enterprise customers are moving forward and discovering tools and processes that will help them improve data security. Gus Tepper, vice president of software development at real estate financial services provider First American, says that incremental progress is important, even if it does not solve every data security headache overnight.

One of the first steps, says Tepper, is to get a better grip on which workers can access which repositories of sensitive information and to automate the process of granting and removing entitlements using more intelligent tools. This has proven vital in a company with close to 40,000 employees, many of whom tend to shift responsibilities on a regular basis.

"We think that we've done a good job of making sure that data is secure from this perspective of access. Where most failures occur is around human process," Tepper says. "To the extent that you can automate and minimize threats via controlling access, this is some of the most important work I think any company can do.”

First American installed encryption technology on all of its laptops to prevent someone from gaining data access if the machines are lost or stolen. It is also employing similar tools to obscure data stored on tape drives in offsite locations, and the company has bought into entitlement management software made by Securent to help its data governance efforts.

"When you're in a large company like ours with hundreds of applications and people moving between divisions, there is a lot of cleaning up that has to happen, as it’s easy to lose track of access privileges without a tool that gives you centralized management," Tepper says. "As far as the outside world having access, we really want to make sure that doesn't happen, and we have a lot of security technologies in place to address that. But by getting a better handle on internal access and all the processes needed to allow for that, we think our standing has improved significantly."

The company also hired its first chief information security officer in 2006 to give data protection a more prominent role in the overall management of its operations, he says.

Many large companies wish that they could start from scratch as they rearchitect their data protection strategies, but even those who can afford to concede that the nature of protecting the information they gather is daunting.

Marty Hodgett, chief information officer at Orchard Supply Hardware, a California-based retail chain with headquarters in San Jose, has been tasked with introducing IT into the company, which is hoping to grow into a national presence in the next few years

As the hardware chain brings workstations and new data harvesting systems into its operations -- which Hodgett classifies as lagging in the use of most modern IT equipment -- it will be an ongoing balancing act to empower the company with more data about its customers, employees, and suppliers while keeping a lid on sensitive information, he says.

Retail giant Sears currently owns roughly 80 percent of OSH, but the hardware chain is also working toward a spin-off from its parent company. "We've been relying on Sears for a lot of things, so now we're putting in our own financials, payment, and human resources systems, among others, on this journey to become independent and expand across the country," Hodgett says. "Today this process is all about risk mitigation. We know we're never going to get to zero, and you can go crazy if you try to consider everything at once, but a key part of building this IT foundation is considering data security at every turn."

One of the tools Hodgett has already employed is data leakage prevention software made by Provilla, to help safeguard sensitive employee and customer data against potential breaches, both intentional and accidental.

"As we are moving up the technology curve and adding capabilities, we're trying to augment everything we do with additional mitigation techniques for risk," Hodgett says. "We're low-tech today, so the risk is low, but as we push the envelope and do things like introduce consumer credit cards, there will lots of demand to secure everything we have, as well as compliance demands."

Expert advice

With everyone from hardware makers to services providers trying to inset their wares into the enterprise security buying cycle, there is no shortage of strategic advice. For starters, Nick Mehta, senior director of product management at Symantec, suggests blending anti-malware applications with data discovery systems.

Mehta leads a team responsible for developing and marketing Symantec's Enterprise Vault technologies, a package of data archiving and security tools. "There will always be ways to circumvent protections, and companies will always have incidents, but you can get rid of a lot of the accidental issues such as missing encryption and broken business processes by employing technologies that identify and block those types of incidents," Mehta says.

On the hardware side, Intel has begun loading its products with additional security features, including the company's recently announced Active Management Technology, which is designed to help IT administrators remotely fix devices that have crashed due to malware or other attacks.

"From an IT operational level, I do think things are getting better, but there will always be a need for continued evolution in the nature that information is stored and protected," says Malcolm Harkins, an IT security director at Intel. "Protection starts with the classification of data and its criticality to a business. Once you do that you can specify controls based on tolerance for risk."

Executives at Imperva, a provider of security and compliance technologies used in corporate datacenters, say that past security investments make it tough to convince business leaders that new tools will actually solve the information protection problem.

"For the last 10 or 15 years, customers have been throwing technologies at these problems, and senior leadership often feels that these solutions haven't proven adequate, so every purchase needs to be defended over and over again," says Robin Matlock, general manager at Imperva. "IT departments need to show leaders where the problems exist and what new options are open to them to address the problems they have. And security vendors really do need to help customers continue to make their business case."

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