Data loss is often caused by authorized users unwittingly leaking critical data. A solid data loss prevention strategy can help, but there are a number of hurdles and caveats with the DLP solutions currently…
March 28, 2012
Data loss is often caused by authorized users unwittingly leaking critical data. A solid data loss prevention strategy can help, but there are a number of hurdles and caveats with the DLP solutions currently on the market.
By David Gibson
In most organizations today, there is sensitive data that is overexposed and vulnerable to misuse or theft, leaving IT in an ongoing race to prevent data loss. Packet sniffers, firewalls, virus scanners, and spam filters are doing a good job securing the borders, but what about insider threats? The threat of legitimate, authorized users unwittingly (or wittingly) leaking critical data just by accessing data that is available to them is all too real.
Analyst firms such as IDC estimate that in 5 years, unstructured data, which makes up 80% of organizational data, will grow by 650%. The risk of data loss is increasing above and beyond this explosive rate, as more dynamic, cross-functional teams collaborate and data is continually transferred between network shares, email accounts, SharePoint sites, mobile devices, and other platforms. As a result, security professionals are turning to data loss prevention (DLP). Unfortunately, organizations are finding that these DLP solutions fail to fully protect critical data because they focus on symptomatic, perimeter-level solutions rather than the deeper problem —users have inappropriate or excessive rights to sensitive information.
DLP Alone Is Not a Panacea
DLP solutions primarily focus on classifying sensitive data and preventing its transfer with a three-pronged technology approach:
- Endpoint protections encrypt data on hard drives and disable external storage to stop data from escaping via employee laptops and workstations.
- Network protections scan and filter sensitive data to prevent it from leaving the organization via email, HTTP, FTP and other protocols.
- Server protections focus on content classification and identifying sensitive files that need to be protected before they have a chance to escape.
This approach works well if an organization knows who owns all the sensitive data and who’s using it. Since that is almost never the case, once the sensitive data is identified, which can takes months, IT is left with the monumental job of finding out who the sensitive data belongs to. Who has and should have access to it? Who is using it? These questions must be answered to identify the highest priority sensitive data (i.e. the data-in-use) and to determine the appropriate DLP procedures.
Unfortunately, DLP’s file-based approach to content classification is cumbersome at best. Upon implementing DLP it is not uncommon to have tens of thousands of “alerts” about sensitive files. The sensitive files involved may have been auto-encrypted and auto-quarantined, but what comes next? Who has the knowledge and authority to decide the appropriate access controls?
DLP solutions provide very little context about data usage, permissions, and ownership, making it difficult for IT to proceed with sustainable remediation. IT does not have the information available to them to make decisions about accessibility and acceptable use on their own. Even if the information was available, it is not realistic to make these kinds of decisions for each and every file.
Context Is King
When an incident occurs or an access control issue is detected, a DLP strategy needs to enable the data owners to take the appropriate action and remediate risks quickly, in the right order. To do this, organizations need enterprise context awareness – i.e., knowledge of who owns the data, who uses the data, and who should and shouldn’t have access.
Managing and protecting sensitive information requires an ongoing, repeatable process. Analyst firm Forrester refers to this as protecting information consistently with identity context (PICWIC).
The central idea of PICWIC is that data is assigned to business owners at all times. When identity context is combined with data management, organizations can provision new user accounts with correct levels of access, recertify access entitlements regularly, and take the appropriate actions when an employee changes roles or is terminated.
Advanced and Comprehensive DLP
The concept of PICWIC and the resulting policies and procedures that it enables are very promising, but how to implement PICWIC and improve DLP implementations? The key to providing the necessary context lies in metadata – collect and analyze required metadata non-intrusively, to automate workflows and auto-generate reports, and have a reliable operational plan to follow.
With the recent advancements in metadata technology, data governance software is providing organizations with the ability to improve DLP implementations by simultaneously showing what data is in use and who is using it. When data governance software is used in conjunction with traditional DLP software, implementations move faster and sensitive data is more accurately identified and protected.
Because data governance software automatically adjusts as changes file structures and activity profiles occur, access controls to shared data are always current and based on business needs. As a result, IT has limited what data makes its way to laptops, printers and USB drives in the first place. That way, efforts to further protect data via filtering, encryption, etc., can be focused more efficiently on only those items that are valuable, sensitive and actively being accessed.
DAVID GIBSON is the director of strategy at Varonis, a provider of unstructured and semi-structured data governance for file systems, SharePoint and NAS devices, and Exchange servers.