Software that stops data breaches

Content monitoring prevents data leaks that let sensitive information leave the premises

An intern working for Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland received a backup disk for safekeeping that contained information on all state employees, welfare recipients and residents who had not cashed their tax refund checks. Someone stole the disk from the intern’s car in June, putting the data of more than 500,000 Ohio residents at risk.

The incident, reported by the Associated Press, is far from rare. Security breaches have exposed more than 155 million confidential data records since May 2005, according to a study by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit advocacy group that specializes in privacy rights.

Outside threats from computer viruses, spyware and hackers may have garnered the most media attention in the past, but data leaks at the hands of employees pose many of the same dangers, and they are on the rise. “There were more incidents last year than all previous years put together,” said Richard Deitz, president and chief executive officer of Government Technology Solutions, a technology supplier to the government.

Leaks can occur when government employees browse the Web, exchange e-mail or instant messages or share files. Whether the leaks are intentional or accidental, the consequences can be severe, jeopardizing citizens’ privacy, threatening national security and undermining public confidence in government.

A growing number of vendors now offer products to address the problem. Referred to as data leak prevention, extrusion-prevention or content-monitoring products, they watch an agency’s network data traffic and look for and, in some cases, block the unauthorized release of sensitive information.

Products can do certain things that policies cannot, said Sol Bermann, Ohio’s chief privacy officer. “Policy can’t prevent accidents,” he said. 

Products are not a cure-all, but they are useful tools for agencies that want to protect data while capitalizing on new ways to work and communicate electronically. “For government, it’s a balance between transparency and securing data,” said Peggy Ward, Virginia’s chief information security officer. The state uses a variety of data leak prevention products, but Ward declined to identify them, citing security reasons.

Trade-offs
One of the challenges that extrusion-detection vendors face is how to make a network’s sensitive information secure without hindering the flow of information for legitimate business purposes. Adding multiple layers of security can bog down performance.

“It’s a trade-off,” said Jay Barbour, vice president of marketing at Intrusion, a vendor that sells content monitoring and other data security products.

In addition, many organizations are decentralizing their networks’ components and creating more entry and exit points.

“The [network] perimeter is disappearing,” said Cheryl Traverse, CEO of Xceedium Security, a security vendor. “The outsourcing of infrastructure [through the use of contractors] has made it harder to keep track of the flow of information.”

To further complicate the issue, many data leaks are often not a result of systems failures but of users intentionally or inadvertently mishandling data. “It’s not an issue of technology,” Deitz said. 

The information most commonly at risk is divided into two categories: personally identifiable information and classified information. The former category includes personal information, such as Social Security numbers, residential information and criminal records. In his book, “Extrusion Detection: Security Monitoring for Internal Intrusions,” Richard Bejtlich identifies three ways to protect that information.

First, soft controls involve employee training and organizational policies regarding safe data handling. Second, direct controls involve good hiring practices to distinguish potential employees who might be security risks and physical security measures, such as restricting access to areas that contain secure data or blocking PC ports for portable storage devices. Finally, indirect controls use network utilities such as data leakage prevention solutions to monitor network traffic.

Some companies such as Arbor Networks specialize in direct and indirect controls. An agency can use Arbor’s monitoring appliance, which will work with any switch or router, to monitor the flow of data and model normal traffic patterns. This method is passive and looks at who is accessing from where and what information they are accessing.

“We raise awareness of what data is getting out and who is doing it,” said Paul Morville, Arbor’s director of product management.

Other approaches
A number of companies such as Fidelis Security Systems, Websense and Intrusion offer products that provide safeguards against data leaks by monitoring data flows and automatically blocking unauthorized transfers in accordance with policies. Other vendors that offer similar capabilities include Palisade Systems, Xceedium, Proofpoint, Reconnex, Tablus, Vericept and Vontu.

Two methods of monitoring the data stream are pattern matching and exact data matching, Barbour said. A commonly used pattern-matching technique looks for specific sequences of characters to identify potentially sensitive data, such as the format used for a Social Security number.

Exact data matching identifies entire groups of data as a whole. An example would be identifying specific files such as maps that contain warfighter movements. That method reduces false positives, but a significant effort is often necessary to set up precise definitions of all the sensitive data, Barbour said.

Fidelis Security Systems sells the only extrusion-prevention products — the company trademarked the phrase extrusion prevention — that the National Information Assurance Partnership, a National Security Agency program, has certified for Defense Department use. A lack of certification, however, hasn’t stopped some civilian agencies from using other vendors’ products.

Many agencies use Websense’s data leak prevention products, said Devin Redmond, the company’s director of security products. “The need outweighs the bureaucracy,” he said.

But cost is a consideration for many agencies. Extrusion-prevention products can be expensive. “It’s a six-digit project - $100,000 to $500,000 is not unusual,” Deitz said.

A basic version of the Websense suite costs $30,000, Redmond said.

Limitations
Available solutions are not without problems. One of the most common weaknesses of extrusion detection is false positives in which the products identify benign files as security risks, Bejtlich said in his book. Business processes interrupted by false positives can frustrate users and consume the time of network managers.

There are also issues concerning the products’ ease of use. “It’s only as good as the people who make it and the executives who implement it,” Ward said.

Agencies must also consider encryption software when seeking extrusion-prevention solutions, which work by recognizing specific information. When a file is encrypted, an extrusion-prevention product cannot analyze it for the presence of words or labels associated with sensitive data.

“Certain things should be encrypted,” Sullivan said. “Rogue encryption is where problems arise” because someone mistakenly or intentionally encrypts files to bypass security measures.

Others warn against over-reliance on quick product fixes for problems as serious and diffuse as information security. “It’s a management issue as much as a technology issue,” said William Pelgrin, New York state’s director of cybersecurity and critical infrastructure coordination. When dealing with sensitive data, it is important to manage user access to certain files and keep certain information on a need-to-know basis, he said.

Caporaletti is a freelance writer in Herndon, Va.
5 ways that data can leakIn the interconnected world in which modern government agencies operate, there are many ways for careless or ill-intentioned employees to leak sensitive information.

Here are five of the most common sources of data leaks and ways to stop them.
  • E-mail: Used to send data as file attachments or as text cut and pasted into a message. Prevent with extrusion-detection software.
  • Instant messaging: Used to transfer files or sensitive information through casual messaging. Prevent with access controls, user training and extrusion-detection software.
  • Web browsing: Used to post information on an unsecured, public Web server and sometimes to trace a government employee’s IP address to an agency with possible adverse security implications. Prevent with browser encryption and passive traffic monitoring.
  • Peer-to-peer file sharing: Used to share files through unmonitored ports. Prevent with extrusion-detection software and passive monitoring of ports.
  • Removable drives: Used to burn or copy data onto a drive and remove data from an agency. Prevent by securing removable drives and monitoring data outflow.

— Jacob Caporaletti

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