The formerly classified documents are tantalizing and the story behind Assange and his WikiLeaks website is fascinating. But amidst the media chatter about the damage inflicted by WikiLeaks itself, the circumstances surrounding the initial release of secret documents from the U.S. government to WikiLeaks should provide a wake up call for other governments and corporations here at home.
Does your office have a copy machine? If so, then this post is worth reading. CBC news has just released the results of an investigation that exposes the security risks associated with modern copy machines, specifically, the ease at which information scanned into certain copiers can be tapped. Just think about the information that gets scanned into your office copier. Personal information. Confidential corporate information such as client data. Even intellectual property. It’s a scary thought if you haven’t done your due diligence, especially considering that privacy laws can apply to certain data undoubtedly scanned into your copy machine. Check out CBC’s online story here or TV segment here. And if you’d like to learn more, you may also want to read my post from earlier this year which provided a link to a similar CBS news story.
The recent headlines over the Veteran Affairs Canada privacy breach should serve as a useful reminder to all organizations – public and private sector – of the necessity to implement internal policies and procedures for the management of personal information. Much attention is paid these days by the media to privacy breaches that involve external parties, such as hackers, who foil the security safeguards of organizations. However, in my experience the bigger threat to privacy if often from within an organization.
In this recent case involving Veteran Affairs, a veteran had filed a complaint with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (“OPC”) alleging that Veterans Affairs had violated the Privacy Act by including excessively detailed and sensitive medical information in briefing notes to the Minister of Veterans Affairs. The complainant also alleged that Veteran Affairs had transferred his medical file to a hospital administered by Veterans Affairs without his consent.
The OPC has issued the following formal recommendations to Veterans Affairs, but they should also serve as useful recommendations to other organizations:
- Revise existing information-management practices and policies to ensure that personal information is shared within the department on a need-to-know basis only. Personal information, including but not limited to sensitive medical information, should not be shared with programs that have no operational requirements for access to such information.
- Provide training for employees about appropriate personal information-handling practices.
- Review procedures to ensure that consent is obtained prior to personal information being transferred to veterans’ hospitals.”
PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) has just released its Global State of Information Security Survey, which says that corporate spending on data security will increase sharply in the coming years. ComputerWeekly.com reports that more than half of respondents to the PWC survey say that their companies plan to spend more on technological defences against security breaches, an increase of 14% from last year. The survey also reveals that the impact of security breaches is growing. According to ComputerWeekly.com ”the number of companies reporting financial losses from data breaches increased 6% in the past year to 20%, up from only 8% in 2008. Intellectual property theft has increased to effect 15% of companies reporting data breaches, up from just 5% in 2008. An increase in the number of sophisticated attacks aimed at stealing information from specific companies is also driving increased security spending according to the Financial Times.”
The PWC survey demonstrates that spending is shifting to monitoring of company networks, at a time when more employees are bringing their own PDA’s and computers into the workplace. But as PWC states, businesses should be making employees the first line of defence against data leaks.
The PWC survey and commentary serves as a reminder of the need to focus resources for data security (and privacy law compliance) strategically. This means investing in technological safeguards but it should mean investing in privacy training for your staff. It’s an important point because so many of the privacy breaches these days result from mistakes, or human error, by one’s own employees. I’d suggest that you compare your organization’s line item for network monitoring with your line item (if it exists) for privacy training. Are your privacy risk mitigation efforts as strategic as they could be?
The CBC National News is reporting in this video news clip that the children’s retail store Please Mum has alerted its online customers about a privacy breach to its online customer database that occurred in early June. Despite the fact that the long-awaited amendments to PIPEDA (which will require organizations to notify affected customers when certain privacy breaches occur) have not yet become law, Please Mum has taken the initiative to alert its customers.
In the absence of specific legal requirements, the decision to notify customers when privacy breaches occur is not an easy task. Far from it. Factors that businesses should consider include assessing what personal information was compromised, the cause and extent of the privacy breach, the number of affected individuals and the anticipated harm that could result from the privacy breach.
CBS News has an excellent investigative report here (on YouTube) about the security risks associated with copy machines. Members of the Privacy Forum will already know about this issue because we’ve previously highlighted it and relevant risk mitigation steps in the Canadian privacy law context. However, if you’re not aware of the issue then this report is a “must-see”.
Privacy advocates are already voicing concern. But unlike previous public debates regarding privacy and surveillance cameras, I expect that the concerns that’ll be raised during and after the 2010 Olympics will be more comprehensive than the traditional “privacy vs security” debate. For instance, Jennifer Stoddart, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, recently commented on this blog that “one of the big issues will revolve around the pervasive crowd surveillance measures, and what will happen with all of the cameras and recordings after the flame is extinguished.”
Of course, there are legal tests that governments (and businesses) should use to determine the appropriateness of installing surveillance cameras in the first place. But once any organization has decided to install surveillance cameras there’s a corresponding requirement to appropriately manage the data that’s collected. For instance, organizations must ensure that they have security, retention and destruction policies in place. This is the “devil in the detail” that’s often overlooked.
I expect public scrutiny of the surveillance cameras being used during the 2010 Olympics. And such scrutiny will increase public expectations on businesses to properly manage data that they too collect by surveillance cameras.
CTV News is reporting that the U.S. federal government improperly posted an internal guide to its airport passenger screening procedures on the Internet in a way that could offer valuable tools to terrorists. The guide was posted on the U.S. Federal Business Opportunity website, but the sensitive information (which was electronically redacted, or blacked out) was not properly protected. Some websites, using widely available software, were able to uncover the original text of sections that had been redacted.
This situation is an example of redactions gone terribly wrong! And it should serve as a reminder to public and private sector organizations to take extra care when making redactions in documents that will be released to third parties. Different redaction strategies can be implemented depending on the circumstances. One strategy that I implement when records will be posted online is to make my redactions and then physically scan the document and save it as a PDF. It’s a basic way to protect sensitive portions of records. Please feel free to post a Comment below with other suggested strategies for making secure redactions.
According to a Cyber-Ark survey entitled “The Global Recession and its effect on Work Ethics” (link below), 58% of U.S. employees surveyed said that if they thought their job was at risk they would, as a pre-emptive move, be prepared to download company/competitive data. Fifty two per cent (52%) said that if they were fired tomorrow they’d take their employer’s customer and contacts data.
More disturbingly, 51% said it’s “easy” to take sensitive information out of their company and, as reported by Out-Law.com, 85% were aware that it’s illegal to download corporate information. The favoured medium for stealing corporate information is a USB memory stick followed by e-mail.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts rogue employees pose a risk to privacy compliance and, as a result, corporate information requires safekeeping. In today’s economy, information is the most valuable corporate asset. For this reason, businesses of all sizes should take proactive steps to protect corporate data. Whether it’s customer or supplier lists, intellectual property or employee personal information, it’s information that needs safekeeping, especially when we see statistics like those reported above.
The U.K.’s Huffington Post is reporting that a rogue employee of a major mobile phone company has illegally sold millions of customer records to rival companies. Apparently, customers’ personal information (including contract expiry dates) was sold to several rivals, which then used the material to cold-call customers to offer them an alternative deal.
As I’ve previously written, information really is the most valuable corporate asset. And for this reason, businesses of all sizes should take steps to protect corporate information regardless of whether it is stored online or off-line. Whether it’s customer or supplier lists, intellectual property or employees’ personal information, it’s information that needs safekeeping.
This case should serve as a reminder that corporate safekeeping practices must include protecting data from rogue employees.