by David Lane

The majority of people in the United States probably have no idea what is contained in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Similarly, most people are clueless about the Payment Card Industry (PCI) standards. Despite this, most of us who work in those fields are expected to not only know about them, but understand the security ramifications behind them. This gets to be even more complicated when you have to take into account that a number of the systems that are part of HIPAA or PCI based purchases are connected to the web.

We can pretty much all agree that web servers, regardless of the underlying OS, are vulnerable to attack. Further, we can also agree that once breached, there is a gold mine of data behind these web servers that the bad guys are just salivating to get their hands on. What most people forget, or more correctly seem to over look, is that the majority of data breaches in the United States in recent memory have not been from the outside in, but from the inside out. As architects and administrators, security specialists and day-to-day users, it is our responsibility to ensure that the data we use daily in our jobs is stored as securely and as safely as possible.

Let’s review. In my last post, I mentioned the break in at the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Prescription Monitoring program. This was probably an attack from the outside and the bad guys managed to get the data and encrypt it, thus holding it for ransom. What I find strange is that they were able to get any data at all. Under the rules of HIPAA, that data should have been encrypted already.

If I were to take a survey, and maybe we will see if we can get the Linux Journal to whip one up for us, how many of you encrypt the data on your laptops as a general practice? If you are in the US Federal Government, all of you should have your hands up, regardless of operating system. The issue of wandering laptops came to a head in 2006 when one was stolen from an employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Not to belittle the issue, but other than bad luck, the employee had not really done anything wrong, according to my sources at the Department. He was in a position where he was entitled to access and use the data.

How many of you encrypt the data on your servers? I expect there are fewer hands in the air, after all, servers are generally locked away in a building somewhere, and most people never get access to them - except in the case of the data theft at TXJ. Again, however, the data was stolen by people with a legitimate need to access the data as a part of their jobs. Perhaps better screening of employees who have access to data that is supposed to fall under the PCI standards is needed. I believe it is fairly safe to say most of us have never had a hard disk go walking.

How many encrypt your backup tapes? I expect there are even fewer hands, even though CitiGroup lost a bunch of backup tapes in shipment. Do we blame UPS for losing the tapes? Or Citi for not taking proper precautions? Or, perhaps, again, they never even considered it a risk.

Finally, how many of you encrypt the hard disks of your desktops? I can hear the laughter as you tell me that most of your desktops barely have enough power to launch the current office automation suite you are using, much less do encryption, yet I am sure we all know someone or have worked with a team where desktops have disappeared. Several years ago, a company I was working at, lost six workstations from the accounting department. To this day I have no idea if they were ever recovered or if there were any data on them that was significant or sensitive.

For many companies, the data is the crown jewels. Millions of bytes are circulated every day on networks that, but for a little bit of probing, are as frail as a strand of hair and less well protected. We spend millions of dollars securing and reducing the risk of penetration from the outside, yet very few companies take the basic steps to secure their data internally. There are simple things that we can all do - such as IPSec on the wire, encryption in the backend and proper security on the desktops. We must think about more than a simple username and password scheme when it comes to securing our data from the bad guys, because, quite often, the bad guys are none other than that cute redhead who just asked you to reset her password. And it wasn’t for her account.

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