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Are your secrets safe with SaaS providers?

Plugging the leaks

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There are plenty of opportunities for people to disclose, steal or sell sensitive company data. After all, anyone who really wants to swipe information needs only the intent and a USB stick.

Admittedly, truly nefarious types are in fairly short supply. But the every day threat to any company’s data comes from the unintentional leak – the overheard conversation, misdirected email or unsecured home Wi-Fi.

Take this example from Twitter:

Outside pub today 4 barristers discussing case so loudly in such detail felt I could defend it myself. 

Its author, legal eagle David Allen Green, New Statesman blogger and media lawyer, describes this as “depressingly common”.

Or this, from a friend on Facebook:

“Dear random person in the coffee shop. You may not want to tell all the IT journalists in the room your business plan. No thanks, me.”

Lost property

We guess that, outside of the writer’s room on Spooks, few civil servants deliberately leave their laptops on public transport. But laptops are nonetheless abandoned to the vagaries of Network Rail, Routemaster buses and London’s taxicab community.

And with every advance in technology new risks of leakage arise. Take software as a service (SaaS). Having access to company data from multiple locations means even more opportunities for more employees to leave a laptop open to anyone who happens to be passing.

The IT department has had to deal these risks for a long time already, but risks are magnified when you put all your business software online.

Handle with care

Alan Lee-Bourke, chief information officer of the Wise Group, a Glasgow not-for-profit organisation that helps ex-offenders get back into work, knows a thing or two about handling sensitive information.

His systems hold files on more than 100,000 people. Some of that data is very sensitive – prisoner data, criminal records and so on.

Training is the key to keeping information secure, he says. “We have to comply with the standards on information security. We have quarterly training, keeping up to date with things like data handling and the Data Protection Act,” he says.

“But we also have quarterly penetration testing and social engineering tests, with people calling in and trying to get our staff to reveal sensitive data over the phone.”

In an ideal world companies wouldn’t store sensitive information in the cloud

Peter Wood, chief executive of First Base, a UK penetration testing firm, says that in an ideal world companies simply wouldn’t store sensitive information in the cloud.

People are often unaware of the dangers before they jump into the cloud, especially with the increasing commoditisation of the technology, according to Wood. They might not even be aware of any internal security protocols.

But Wood is a realist, acknowledging that there might be reasons, even if he doesn’t find them compelling, for company to keep even very sensitive data in the cloud. In this case, the only thing left to manage is the people.

Magic word

“Let’s make it a worst-case scenario. These guys have remote workers and they can access the software on their personal machines. The most important thing is to get people to understand password security,” he says.  

  • Ensure staff have to choose a secure pass phrase, and if possible give them a password safe tool to help them remember them.  
  • Make sure they have good firewalls, up-to-date anti-virus and anti-trojan software, and that access to the computer is limited. (“You don’t want the security or remote data compromised by a locally introduced malware, or something simply left in a browser session.")

Wood signs off with a note of caution: ISO27001 certification is a good thing to look for in a SaaS provider, indicating that the company has at least thought about security. But it shouldn’t induce a sense of complacency.

“ISO27001 is a great standard. But it is not detailed enough for cloud services. It gives you an idea about policies but it hasn’t changed fundamentally in years,” he says.

“Technology, on the other hand, moves fast.” ®

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