Industry Perspective: 4 Things WikiLeaks Taught Us About Document Security

Until recently many of us may have thought that government documents were secure, but WikiLeaks has provided a much-needed jolt back to reality.

by / June 17, 2011

Editor's Note: Adi Ruppin is the vice president of business development for WatchDox, a provider of secure document sharing and software-as-a-service solutions.

Thank you, Julian Assange, for the priceless lesson in document security that you and Wikileaks have provided over the past few months. Until recently many of us may have thought that government documents were secure, but WikiLeaks has provided a much-needed jolt back to reality.

The bad news is that as new technologies are adopted, such risks are likely to grow. The Washington Post recently reported that the federal government will leverage the cloud and use more mobile devices. For example, 17,000 General Services Administration employees will reportedly switch their e-mail provider to Gmail. Many others will move from Blackberrys to iPhones and replace their laptops with iPads.

While these technologies will hopefully make the government more efficient, I believe it will also make it easier for agencies to lose control of their data.

Imagine if you accidentally misplaced your tablet, or worse yet, someone stole it from you. You want a way to prevent a thief from reading your documents — some of which, if released, could be harmful to you or your organization. It’s not merely a hypothetical: Recently an iPad was stolen from a UK Parliament committee chairman who examines the government’s handling of crime and terrorism. In addition to this reported incident, there is the future threat of rogue employees who could remove information from their tablets, PCs or cloud storage and share it with unauthorized parties.

Among the many truths we have learned from Wikileaks and similar incidents are these important tenets of document security:

1. Share Information, but be careful with whom you share. In order to conduct the business of governing, we must share information — internally and externally. There is no way to lock sensitive data behind impervious walls without shutting down progress and productivity. However, we can be more careful with whom we share and how, by limiting the distribution to only the necessary parties and requiring strong authentication techniques for them to access the documents. But that alone isn’t enough, especially when information is increasingly accessed from mobile devices such as smartphones and laptops. This is where the next rule comes in.

2. Trust is nice, but back it up with technology. It’s clear that several people who were deemed to be trustworthy have divulged sensitive material to Wikileaks. But some of these leaks could have been prevented. There are proven technologies in the market that can prevent information leaks by restricting people with whom you share information from copying, printing or forwarding these materials. These technologies also allow you to wipe documents sent to someone, long after being saved from e-mails and logged into other devices. These settings are embedded directly in documents so that the security controls remain, regardless of where the data travels. With such technology, sensitive documents are always kept away from unauthorized viewers, enabling the prevention of embarrassing leaks and security issues.

3. Implement embedded security technology, but don’t make it complicated for the user. Government agencies and businesses are understandably scrambling to deploy solutions to protect their organizations from security incidents. Before they lock down their data in complex systems that require server upgrades, software agents and other significant changes, they should consider ease-of-use. If the exchange of documents, both sensitive and otherwise, becomes complicated by technology, then a user isn’t likely to use it. Asking users to adopt different tools for different information types and classifications is likely to lead to slip-ups; some sensitive information could flow through unsecured communication mechanisms. The only way information can be safeguarded is if the technologies that secure the information are used every time a user communicates, which is possible only if the technology is easy to use and is embedded into a user’s natural means of communication. Cloud-based document security technologies (discussed in the previous guideline) require little or no software installation, and seamlessly integrate into existing systems such as e-mail or Microsoft Office.

4. Traditional encryption and data loss prevention solutions won’t prevent the next WikiLeaks type of incident. Legacy data loss prevention (DLP) technology is flawed when it comes to preventing incidents. Encrypted e-mail can be decrypted. Password-protection doesn’t lock down a document if the recipient shares his or her password. Government employees need to be able to share sensitive documents and collaborate internally and externally. However, encryption and DLP technologies provide only a partial solution. They might be able to protect documents in-transit or prevent certain documents from going out. However, once a document leaves the confines of the organization, this “last-mile” protection is nonexistent in such technologies.

Wikileaks and the threat of sensitive information leaking from the emerging class of smart devices aren’t isolated incidents. For example, recently the Transportation Security Administration unwittingly saw its screening manuals published online. As we share information digitally, we have to ensure that everyone who receives our documents is able to safeguard that information. A person shouldn’t be allowed to print, copy or forward a document without the originator’s consent. We have to take a harder look at how we secure data. Fortunately we have technology available today to help us.


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