Mobile data poses security risk

Sensitive information can easily be lost or stolen outside agency walls

Protecting personally identifiable information continues to be a key concern for federal agencies. The loss of computer-based information is a major threat. In fact, 49 percent of respondents to 1105 Government Information Group’s recent Cybersecurity Top 10 Insights survey listed mobile devices — with their encryption and physical security issues — as their No. 2 concern. Respondents came from defense, federal civilian, and state and local government agencies.

The effect on federal chief information officers might seem obvious. But even with the move to simplify and clarify sensitive but unclassified (SBU) information while adhering to the Office of Management and Budget’s remote data encryption mandate — OMB M-06-16 — there are still major failings.

The mandate’s objective is to secure all sensitive government data that is gathered and stored on removable media. It addresses a large amount of government work that takes place outside offices equipped with stringent security processes and systemwide encryption programs. If those protections are not available in the field, all sensitive data must be transmitted only by mobile devices that are equipped with encryption standards described in the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2.

As former senior director of security programs at the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, I am well aware of the challenges of complying with those practices. Also, after witnessing the far-reaching consequences of cybersecurity gaffes at other agencies — even when the worst-case scenario didn’t happen, and the lost or stolen data was not used for harm — it is not a situation any government official, employee or contractor wants to be in.

Multiple types of removable media and devices hold sensitive government information, and each presents a set of distinct challenges to achieve full compliance with OMB M-06-16. There has been a lot of focus on laptop PCs, but the use of CDs, DVDs and flash drives presents an even greater problem because those types of media can store a vast amount of data. Furthermore, many of the devices on NIST’s list of flash drives that comply with FIPS 140-2 are prohibitively expensive and incompatible with multiple computers or users.

Similarly, transcriptions for federal legal and criminal investigative cases have been and continue to be conducted by commercial transcription or deposition service companies that do not adhere to proper encryption standards. Alternative solutions are cumbersome, so most federal CIOs waive the requirement, which results in transcribers processing SBU materials on home computers and transmitting them unencrypted via the Internet or commercial mail carriers.

Federal CIOs must re-evaluate how their agencies use, access and transmit government data to ensure that those practices comply with OMB M-06-16’s encryption mandate and security best practices as outlined in the Federal Information Security Management Act. The federal information that is being exposed through noncompliance, although unclassified, is sensitive enough that it could cause serious harm if passed into the wrong hands. There is real potential for hackers to infiltrate unsecured corporate networks or home computers, not to mention the ease with which an unauthorized user could recover SBU data from an unencrypted CD or flash drive.

The government community must band together to protect its sensitive data through appropriate practices and protections. Hackers have the knowledge and the tools to initiate serious data breaches, but they won’t be able to infiltrate the government’s protections if those safeguards are properly and comprehensively instituted at all government agencies.

About the Author

Earl Hicks Jr. was formerly director of security programs at the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General and is founder and chief executive officer of LegaLock, a company that provides secure transcription services.

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Reader comments

Tue, Aug 25, 2009 Kevin Sweere Dayton, OH

Mr. Hicks article was almost dead on -- he failed to offer practical recommendations. The Data-At-Rest (DAR) community at was created to foster products to secure mobile data (full disk and file encryption) while the DoD Enterprise Software Initiative at lists such approved products. Complimenting these large products, the DoD's Software Protection Initiative's offers the FREE, small and simple, Java, FIPS 140-2, AF-certified, CAC-enabled, file encryptor called Encryption Wizard (EW) at (Download now at Combined, DAR and EW offer federal CIO's a fast, strong, low-cost way to protect mobile data.

Tue, Aug 11, 2009 David Shaw Dallas, TX

Too much money and effort has been spent on network-centric approaches that are geared to protect the princess within the walls of the castle. It's past time to consider content-centric approaches that effectively arm the princess so she self-protects 24/7 within and outside of the castle. Content-Centric Security (CCS) enables one to author self-governing content that continuously self-protects, after release, without the need to authenticate against a central authority.

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