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Security No-Brainer #6: Encryption Needs to be Extended to All PCs and Servers

by Neil MacDonald  |  June 24, 2009  |  2 Comments

Most of us know by now that encryption of mobile laptops should be considered mandatory. However, encryption of the direct attached storage used in fixed desktops and servers hasn’t been a priority because of their relative lack of mobility.

However, this overlooks the significant issue of data leakage when devices are retired. This point was driven home in a documentary last night on PBS last night titled “Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground – Dirty little secrets of the e-waste trade”. From the synopsis:

Hard drives that can be salvaged are displayed at open-air markets. Off camera, Ghanaians admit that organized criminals sometimes comb through these drives for personal information to use in scams.

As part of the investigation, one of the students buys a number of hard drives to see what is on them, secretly filming the transaction to avoid the seller’s suspicions.

The drives are purchased for the equivalent of US$35.

The students take the hard drives to Regent University in the Ghanaian capital and ask computer scientist Enoch Kwesi Messiah to help read what is on them.

Within minutes, he is scrolling through intimate details of people’s lives, files left behind by the hard drives’ original owners.

There is private financial data, too: credit card numbers, account information, records of online transactions the original owners may not have realized were even there.

“ I can get your bank numbers and I retrieve all your money from your accounts,” Messiah says. “If ever somebody gets your hard drive, he can get every information about you from the drive, no matter where it is hidden.”

Rather than depend on a data wiping process when our machines are disposed  (which isn’t foolproof with a single pass and which may or may not be performed), why don’t we simply strongly encrypt the data and make sure the keys aren’t stored on the hard drive when it is retired?

Do you know for certain all of your retired machines have been disposed of safely? Check again to be sure. And then again.

One of the drives the team has purchased contains a $22 million government contract.

It turns out the drive came from Northrop Grumman, one of America’s largest military contractors. And it contains details about sensitive, multi-million dollar U.S. government contracts. They also find contracts with the defense intelligence agency, NASA, even Homeland Security.

The data on a well-encrypted hard drive without the key is as unrecoverable as a multi-pass data wiping process. Oh, and there’s the added benefit of protection from direct theft from an office (an issue for organizations with lots of distributed locations with little security at the remote sites) and for protection for machines in transit as they are shipped from one location to another.

Cost? Sure – but the cost of full drive encryption is rapidly dropping. Prices for software-based solutions are dropping and vendors are building this as a standard capability into the hard drives, into the OS and into the motherboard itself. Multi-pass data wiping has a cost too, especially if you can’t sleep at night knowing for sure whether this was performed or not.

Overhead? Sure – there’s a slight impact to encryption (more if software-based, less if in the drive controller or hard drive itself). Either way, Moore’s law gives us more and more processing power each year. Let’s use some of that additional processing power for a no-brainer like encrypting all desktop and server hard drives moving forward.

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Category: next-generation-security-infrastructure  security-of-applications-and-data  

Tags: endpoint-protection-platform  security-no-brainer  

Neil MacDonald
VP & Gartner Fellow
15 years at Gartner
25 years IT industry

Neil MacDonald is a vice president, distinguished analyst and Gartner Fellow in Gartner Research. Mr. MacDonald is a member of Gartner's information security and privacy research team, focusing on operating system and application-level security strategies. Specific research areas include Windows security…Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Security No-Brainer #6: Encryption Needs to be Extended to All PCs and Servers

  1. Ant Allan says:

    Is encryption the best or only solution, though?

    There is also the data destruction approach: see “Best Practices for Data Destruction”

    The issue seems particularly important given the findings of our recent Dataquest research: “In 2008, 37 million secondary PCs were exported to emerging markets. By 2012, the number will have increased to 69 million.” (“Dataquest Insight: Emerging Markets Are Becoming Dumping Grounds for Secondary PCs”

    — Ant

  2. Neil MacDonald says:

    The links to the research notes are quite relevant – thanks

    True – encyrption is not the only solution to the issue of data leakage during the disposal of IT assets. I was using this issue to raise the point of why don’t we encrypt fixed desktop and server storage? It not only provides protection during disposal (the issue highlighted here – again, assuming the key isn’t stored on the drive) but it also provides protection from theft in the office and during transit of machines. With multiple benefits during the life (and death) of the machine.and with the cost and impact of encryption rapidly approaching zero, why not?

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