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5 Simple Precautions to Protect Personal Data Outside the Office
A recent article in the Times caught my eye. It was about the notion of “extreme employment”. I think most of us can agree with the idea that there has been an inexorable increase in the pressure on us to be always available, working longer hours and always ready to answer the phone to a customer or late at night. on weekends and even on holidays. Coupled with the ready availability of increasingly sophisticated mobile technology, it is inevitable that many of us take work at home with us, or at least, outside the safety of the office environment.
For many of us, this means that we take with us sensitive information and the consequences of losing that data could be catastrophic. One of my current tasks is to prepare security awareness training for colleagues working in a large Public Sector tender. We have to provide this training to highly qualified and very experienced IT professionals, but looking around, I remember that what is obvious and necessary for a security specialist is often at best an annoying distraction for others. We all have to remember that the mishandling of sensitive information can have serious contractual and even legal consequences both for an individual and for his employer.
So, take a look at these 5 simple precautions, to make sure you’re not the one making the headlines.
1: Pay attention to the physical security of your laptop while traveling: Any attempt to work outside the office almost inevitably means taking a laptop, loaded with project data (including commercially sensitive as well as personal data) with you while traveling. No matter how you travel, it is bound to present many opportunities for your laptop to be lost or stolen. It is fair to assume that, in general, the reason for the theft is to sell the laptop further, rather than a concerted attempt to obtain any data stored on it. However, you should take reasonable care not to advertise that you may be a valuable target. For example, don’t take your company outside the building. The risk is greater when you leave the laptop unattended:
- While driving, keep the laptop out of sight, in the boot of your car.
- When staying in a hotel, keep the laptop in a safe, if one is provided in your room.
- When using the laptop in a public place, secure the laptop with a Kensington lock.
2: Use full disk encryption to protect your data: If your laptop is lost or stolen, the cost of replacing the hardware is relatively minor – and it’s insured anyway, right? The real cost of the incident is the loss or disclosure of sensitive information stored on the laptop. To protect against this, you should install full disk encryption software. This ensures that all data on the laptop disk is encrypted, when the laptop is closed. Only when the laptop is powered on and the authorized user completes the pre-boot authentication, the disk data is decrypted and available for use. Commercial software is available from a number of well-known vendors, including PGP and DESlock. You have to keep in mind that, unless you are not careful, even the authorized user may be unable to decipher the data on the disk. You must make sure that:
- Run the operating system’s disk maintenance utility to defragment the disk and check and mark any bad areas on the disk;
- You must make a full backup of the disk volume(s) before installing the encryption software;
- The installation process will give you the opportunity to create the Emergency Recovery Information – be sure to write this ERI to a CD or other removable medium and store it in a safe place;
- Most importantly, the encryption software is only in effect when the laptop is closed or hibernating. Never travel with your laptop on standby.
3: Protect against interception when working in public places: One of my favorite tech commentators is Peter Cochrane, who writes a regular column for Silicon.com. Earlier this year, Peter reported how easy it was to collect sensitive information from his fellow passengers on the train. Anyone who regularly travels on commuter train services will be familiar with indiscreet conversations and (even worse) one-sided phone conversations, which give away much more sensitive information than they should.
Resist the temptation to discuss sensitive matters in public places and try to limit calls to your cell phone until you can find a more private place. Back to Peter Cochrane again. During his frequent air travel, he noticed people using mobile phones to photograph the screens of other people’s laptops. His blog shows how it is possible (given enough patience and a little experimentation) to get a reasonable picture of someone’s laptop screen. This situation is easily fixed for a modest cost, through the use of a privacy screen. These clip onto the laptop screen and make it impossible to read the screen unless you are directly in front of it. These screens work along the same lines as polarizing sunglasses – just make sure they fit correctly.
4: If you must use removable supports, be very careful: It is almost an immutable law of nature that if you copy sensitive data to removable media, eventually that media will be lost. The simplest remedy of course is not to use removable media. My current employer prohibits the use of these devices in Public Sector projects and, at one time, at least one department of the British government filled the USB ports of the laptops with superglue, to be absolutely safe. Of course, a blanket ban is not always practical, so if you need to use a memory stick, removable drive or similar, here are a few suggestions:
- Never allow the use of personal removable devices – you have no idea how or where they have been used before or will be next.
- Have a pool of memory sticks for your project, clearly marked and with some sort of unique identifier. Have team members check them in and out (with a signature) when they need them and make sure missing or delayed devices are always followed up immediately.
- Always encrypt the device. As we discussed earlier in this article, using full disk encryption when dealing with sensitive information is absolutely vital. So, if all members of your team have the ability, it’s crazy not to use it for removable devices as well.
- It is worth the effort to select only the minimum amount of data to copy on removable media. It might be faster to export the entire contents of a database, but you should do everything in your power to limit potential loss.
5: Always use a secure connection on public networks: Finally, when you are out of the office and need to work, take care to secure your communications. We assume that all networks (in hotels or other public areas, at customer sites and even at home) are hostile. Always use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection to encrypt all your traffic when connecting to your organization’s intranet from the outside and never use a public computer or your home computer to connect to the intranet. So, to summarize, a mixture of sensible procedural precautions, along with a few simple and inexpensive technical additions can do a lot to control the risks of taking sensitive information outside of the normal office environment. These measures might be a little inconvenient, but they will go a long way to ensure that you are not the one responsible for a data loss, resulting in massive reputational damage, loss of contracts and potentially huge fines for your employer.
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