Big Data

Behind the scenes of big data

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As quickly as technology and devices are evolving, so too are the security risks that threaten to compromise them. Data plays a crucial role in government’s ability to carry out its mission, but agencies must first make sure their data is secure. Paul Christman, vice president of Dell Software Public Sector, spoke with FCW about how he sees the big data landscape changing, and what government can do about it.

FCW: How would you describe this last year in big data?

Christman: I look at things like the DATA act, it’s interesting in that it’s an example of how big data works, but it's certainly not the only thing that people are looking at. It is an interesting public-facing big data application, but the ideas that are embodied in big data and also security around big data have been in place for years. These are more marquee activities, but there’s a whole series of other things that have been going on behind the scenes for years, trying to apply big data and business analytics to the data sets that the federal government collects.

FCW: What are some of these “behind the scenes” activities you’re referring to?

Christman: There are a couple of things that I would say are more promising than the DATA act, [which] really focuses on exposing the government’s budget. That’s a big set of data that needs to be collected from all over the place, but I look at things like health care data that is being collected as part of the Affordable Care Act, and I think that shows greater promise. If you look at things that are happening in other areas, like CDM within the Department of Homeland Security, continuous diagnostics and monitoring is an example of big data analytics; ingesting an awful lot of information and trying to use it for security purposes.

FCW: How big of a security risk do data center warehouses pose?

Christman: We would look at a data warehouse as just a big gigantic set of information to secure. We can secure it in the traditional ways, like perimeter protection and we could look at the data warehouse and say system administrators, for instance, have elevated privileged access, and we can control that. From that perspective we can secure data warehouses from a very mechanical, transactional perspective, as far as who has access to what. The real challenge comes in defining the policies and procedures for securing the data warehouse.

FCW: How is the big data security landscape changing?

Christman: Mobility is creating a huge problem for the federal government. If we look at big data and how that data is then delivered to mobile devices, it’s a huge security problem. Data at rest that were accessed using a mobile device, and if that mobile device is not secured -- we see that as a huge problem, and we have tools to fix that problem. But data at rest on mobile devices that may have come out of big data applications is a huge new security risk that folks are struggling with. So that’s how things are changing. The other issue, and if you look at the FISMA reports, and if you look at some of the other reports around password inefficiency, is two-factor authentication being something that we think is absolutely required, especially for critical applications. And as I mentioned before, elevated and privileged access control is absolutely necessary.

FCW: What’s your suggestion to agencies for combating these risks?

Christman: A lot of the basics that we’ve talked about with big data go into this idea of data hygiene. It's standard-issue stuff, it’s not anything new, it’s a question of the platforms it goes on. We need to take that good IT management and those tools and extend them to non-traditional devices. The structures and the disciplines exist, it’s a matter of extending it to the new platforms. We IT people have to adjust our ability to do end-point management on non-traditional mobile devices. The basics are there, good, strong encryption and network protection and proactive understanding of least-privileged access. Those things exist and we’ve known about them for a long time. Big data, cloud, mobility -- all those other things just give us an opportunity to put those good IT practices into play.

About the Author

Colby Hochmuth is a former staff writer for FCW.

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