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Public exposure of private data is becoming a regular occurrence, but the majority of these incidents can be prevented if companies implement the proper security best practices, according to analysts at Gartner.

"From lost laptops to misplaced backup tapes to accidental emails filled with sensitive information, we seem to be in the midst of a data loss epidemic, with tens of millions of individuals receiving 'data loss' notification letters this year," Gartner research vice president Rich Mogull said.

"Data loss and information leaks are not random acts of nature too costly to prevent. By following these five steps, enterprises can dramatically reduce the risk of their valuable structured or unstructured information ending up in the wrong hands and forcing an embarrassing public disclosure."

Gartner analysts identified the top five steps to prevent data loss and information leaks:

1. Deploy Content Monitoring and Filtering (CMF)

A CMF solution monitors all outbound network traffic and generates alerts regarding (or sometimes blocks) activity based on inspecting the data in network sessions. CMF tools monitor common channels, including email, IM, FTP, HTTP and web mail (interpreting the HTTP for specific web mail services) and look for policy violations based on a variety of techniques.

"CMF tools are best at detecting and reducing information loss from accidents, such as emailing the wrong file to the wrong person, or bad business process, such as exchanging HR data over an unencrypted FTP connection," Mogull said. "CMF won't stop all malicious activity and can be circumvented by a knowledgeable attacker. Still, most information leaks are the result of these accidents or bad processes, and CMF is evolving rapidly to address more malicious attacks."

2. Encrypt backup tapes and (possibly) mass storage

Gartner analysts doubt that many of the reported lost backup tapes containing consumer records eventually result in fraud. However, because there is no way to know for sure, companies have to assume exposure anyway. Encryption can ensure that the data will still be safe.

"During the past few years, tools have emerged that significantly improve the performance, manageability and simplicity of encryption," Mogull said. "For large tape installations, we recommend in-line encryption appliances. For tape drives connected to local systems or servers, companies may want to consider software encryption. Older mainframes may need an in-line appliance with an adapter for mainframe protocols, while new software solutions can take advantage of extra processors or cryptographic coprocessors in more current models."

3. Secure workstations, restrict home computers, and lock portable storage

Workstations and laptops can be a major source of loss, especially when a poorly configured or out-of-date enterprise or home computer is compromised by a virus or worm, and by losing portable storage media, such as a Universal Serial Bus (USB) drive or CD-ROM.

"There's really no excuse for not keeping an enterprise system up-to-date with the latest patches, a personal firewall, anti-virus and anti-spyware software," Mogull said. "These precautions alone will prevent the vast majority of commonly encountered internet attacks."

4. Encrypt laptops

If organisations give employees portable computers, employees will store sensitive data on it. Gartner says policies don't matter: users will always use the tools they acquire, and sensitive data will always end up in unexpected places.

"There is only one tool to protect sensitive information on a lost laptop: encryption, preferably whole-drive encryption from a third-party vendor," Mogull said. "Whole-driven encryption, as opposed to file and folder encryption, involves very little user action, protects all data on the computer, and is not vulnerable to the same kinds of recovery techniques that skirt the protections of passwords or other controls."

5. Deploy database activity monitoring

Most organisations struggle to secure existing databases that are rarely designed with effective security controls. While companies eventually need to encrypt some of the data in their databases, database activity monitoring is a powerful security control that's easier to implement and more viable than encryption for many types of data.

"Database activity monitoring tools observe all activity within a database, record this activity in a secure repository and generate instant alerts for unusual activity," Mogull said. "Through detection of unusual behaviour, database activity monitoring can limit insider misuse of database systems, enforce separation of duties for database administrators and limit certain external attacks, all without affecting database performance."

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