Tuesday, July 31, 2007

(At Least) Ten Things The WSJ Got Wrong

I have just been reading an article on the Wall Street Journal site called "Ten Things Your IT Department Won't Tell You." The article is about how and why companies don't let you do certain things on their computers and on their networks, and how you can get around these security controls. The article completely misses the point of the security controls. I'm with the IT department, and I want to tell you why and how the WSJ got it wrong.

Security features are put in place to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of assets of a company. This does not vary much from place to place, this is the stated reason for putting most security measures in place. Most security practitioners don't even view employees' productivity as an asset; if there is a productivity problem, the burden of enforcement lies with the employee's manager or supervisor. From personal experience, I can tell you that I have much better things to do with my time than to try and see who has been trying to get to YouTube or Playboy. But if you circumvent our security measures, I'm required by regulations, guidelines, and company procedures to investigate the incident.

This brings me to one of the biggest things that the WSJ article seems to miss: We can see you doing what you are doing! Many organizations, due to regulations such as HIPAA, SOX, GLBA, PCI DSS, etc. are required to put in place tools to give visibility into electronic communications. This means that wherever you work, you probably have somebody looking over your shoulder. In my organization, we use a monitor that lets us see any unencrypted communication going out to the Internet. We have rules built in the monitor that will log and alert us when certain keywords or other data are transmitted.

For instance we have rules built to detect people circumventing our website blocker by using a proxy site or software. This is relatively easy most of the time because the transmission still goes in cleartext and so the monitor picks up on the site categories. And if you use an encrypted proxy, we can usually still see that because we have access to all of the proxy lists that are available, just like everyone else does. We can still tell that people are circumventing our security tools.

Our policies and the regulations we follow require that these violations to be documented and reported. In many cases, this leads to disciplinary action against en employee. Several people here have been fired for violating our security measures. This does not just include the use of proxy servers, but extends to unauthorized use of USB drives, installing unlicensed and unapproved software, bringing in a laptop to use peer-to-peer software, etc. Just because you are able to do something doesn't mean you are authorized to do it. And just because you get away with it the first time with no repercussions doesn't mean that we don't care or don't know.

Now that I have established that point, let me address the first point that I made: the policies and procedures we institute are not arbitrary! Aside from the regulatory requirements I listed above, we have good reasons for putting in place the restrictions that we do. These policies are designed to reduce support costs, protect the computers and network from viruses and malware, decrease the likelihood of an unintended information disclosure, and reduce bandwidth costs.
So here's "(At Least) Ten Things The WSJ Got Wrong."
1. We don't want you sending big files through email because it is expensive. Do you know how much it costs to buy more disk space for your email server? About $4 per GB (2x 300GB Ultra SCSI 320). If you have a legitimate business purpose for sending a large file, call us up. We'd love to help you and make sure that the file gets sent the right way. Especially if it is a case where the release of the information must be regulated. Just don't ask us to help you forward the latest movie trailer or funny video clip you downloaded.

2. We don't want you to use unauthorized software because it drives support costs up and could get us into a lot of trouble. No, we won't let you use Limewire to download the hottest software, songs, and movies. If the BSA, RIAA, or MPAA catch you, we are the ones who get sued -- that's a huge liability! Not to mention the performance hit on the network and the bandwidth costs.

If something you use or install causes conflicts with one of our applications or changes some obscure settings, are you going to pay to get the computer back up and running properly? Nope, we eat that cost too. We have a limited set of software that we approve because this is what we support and it is what our software vendors support. If IE7 or Firefox won't work with the web application somebody else built, we don't have the resources to fix it.

3. We block certain websites because they could create a hostile workplace, are associated with virues or spyware, or suck up all our bandwidth. If someone visits an adult website and another employee or customer sees it, we can be sued. Do you really need to do that at work anyway?

Quite a few of the websites that we block host viruses or spyware or act as relay points for keystroke loggers. Anti-Virus won't catch everything -- it has to update multiple times per day just to stay abreast of the latest threats, some of which can shut down the protective software altogether.

Streaming video and audio sites can consume huge amounts of bandwidth. Even though they are streamlined for distribution, they can still be hogs if several people are using them at once. For simplicity's sake, let's assume that streaming audio will eat up 64kbps and streaming video uses 128kbps. Some use more, very few use less. And let's assume that your company has a 10mbps connection to the Internet. Some simple math says that 150 listeners or 75 viewers will totally saturate the connection. But this doesn't count those people visiting websites, any applications which require Internet connectivity, email, etc. Not only that, but the streaming media protocols typically try and gulp up as much bandwidth as they can at once, which may generate 5-10x as much traffic at any one time. In practice, if about 20 people on this Internet connection are using YouTube or listening to a radio station, you will notice a big slowdown when visiting websites.

4. Most of the time, clearing out your Internet Browser files doesn't help anyone. If you get a virus or any other nasty malicious software on your computer, clearing out your browser files makes it harder for us to track down and prevent next time. And most of the time, it won't even cover your tracks if you've been someplace you shouldn't have been. There's a reason we've got forensic tools at our disposal. We can usually get that information off your hard drive, and even if we can't your activity is still being logged by our network forensic tools. If you don't want your employer to know what sites you visit, don't go there on his dime.

5. Don't cause a data leak by taking your documents home without checking with us first. Call your IT department and see how they want you to work at home. Odds are, we have a way to do this or can come up with something to allow it. If we can't, talk to your boss about it and make sure they know you'll be working on your own time to increase your productivity. Doing one of these two things will help to make sure you can get your work done and that we can keep the data protected. Email, portable storage, online file sharing, and other methods are NOT designed to keep confidential information safe, they're designed to spread this information as easily as possible! You'll do yourself and your organization a favor if you play by the rules on this one.

6. If you store your work documents online, a hundred bad things can happen to them. In addition to the reasons I mentioned in #5, there are other things that can go wrong with online storage. If you're storing your important files with a free online storage site for a backup or as your only copy, don't. Encrypted data needs a key to unlock it -- are you going to make sure it's safely and securely stored? These things get lost or stolen all the time and then the data is gone or is available to anyone. And online companies don't have the best track record for keeping your data available. Google, who tries to permanently store all online data, has lost accounts, messages, and files many times from Blogger and Gmail. Your organization backs up the data stored with them (or should) and those backups are ensured against loss or theft. This is the right way to go about it.

7. Web mail and instant messenger conversations should never be used to send private or confidential data. Only a few web mail providers, such as Hushmail, provide SSL encrypted communication by default. This means that anything you view in your web mail can be viewed by our monitoring tools. Yup, from that email confirmation when you applied to our competitor to the naughty photos your girlfriend sent you, we can see it. And web mail doesn't have a great record for privacy anyway; Hotmail and Gmail have had several flaws that have allowed attackers to gain access to hundreds or thousands of mailboxes at a time. Not great if you've got any emails with your Social Security Number, bank account number, credit card online account password, etc.

Instant messaging isn't much better. Though you can add encryption to your conversations, the software tends to fail silently, not alerting you to the fact that the messages you're sending are unencrypted. Also, the person on the other side has to have set up their client to encrypt the messages too. If you're going to chat with your buddies, do it outside of work for your own benefit.

8. Forwarding your company email to your personal account is a bad idea. If an email is sent from one email box to another on the same system, the message stays as safe as your email system. However if you forward that outside your organization's security perimeter, it can be very bad news. To begin with, you're probably going to be sending the message unencrypted to your personal mail server. From there, when you check your mail it will probably be unencrypted. Then if that mail is forwarded to your cell phone or PDA it is probaly left unencrypted on the mobile data network. This is just a bad idea all the way around. If getting your email outside of work will help you do work, odds are your IT department and/or your boss will help to accommodate you to increase your productivity. Just ask.

9. Checking personal mail on your company PDA or Blackberry isn't all that bad, just don't expect the IT staff to help you do it. The only places where this would be a bad idea from a security standpoint is in highly secure environments where secret or top secret information is being passed around. But that doesn't just include the military, it also applies to anyone who has access to information that might be highly desirable to others. There are not many viruses out there that target mobile platforms and those that do don't spread by email. However, it is conceivable that a specifically created multi platform virus could work its way into your network this way.

But you'll want to think about things carefully before you do this. Many organizations have a Blackberry Enterprise Server that controls the flow of data to and from the handheld device. So it might be that your mail is going through your company's network to get to you. If that bothers you, don't set it up this way.

10. We don't care about your productivity unless you work for the IT department. Your productivity is your boss's problem. We may help him or her to trace your online activity, but we don't really care. But keep in mind that we can still see what you're doing on the Internet, and part of somebody's job might be to generate reports for managers so that they can see what you are doing.

11. The IT Department should be your friend, not your enemy! Information Technology is a business enabling tool for your organization. We're here to make the business more profitable and to help you do your job. Sometimes it doesn't come across that way, but I can guarantee that this is the way your CEO sees it. If you can make a good case that something would increase your productivity and improve the business appreciably, odds are you can get it implemented.

Just because you don't know a way to do something doesn't mean we don't have a good way to do it. One of the things that strikes me most about these points is that many IT shops already have approved methods to do them. If you have a legitimate business use for doing something, odds are we've got you covered. Whether it's getting to your documents at home, checking email from the road, or surfing the 'net in your free time, ask us! If we can reduce the amount of work we have to and help you out at the same time, it'd be silly not to.

Remember, your IT staff is comprised of people who have the same desires and face the same problems. We have motivations to do things, and figuring those out can help you get what you want. Pitch the same thing two different ways and you can get two different responses. If you are able to let us know how it benefits us, you're much more likely to get your way. Together we can figure out a system that can make it possible. Treat us like a friend and you might be surprised what we'll help you with.

update: There are lots of other good responses to this article out in the Blogosphere, some of which I have listed below. Security violations are up today, as is the paperwork I've now got to do to report them. But this can be a good thing for those of us who are out there protecting our networks. We can help educate the people who have the power to change these things as well as the people who want to get around the security measures. We have to work a little harder on the front end, but it pays off in the long run.

Andy, IT Guy
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Super Geek said...

right on, brother! preach it!

'convenience over security', this is the typical user viewpoint, and it's getting pretty old.

most people don't realize that trying to circumvent security measures makes you look guilty, and is a major pain in the ass.

Rob said...

This is far more polite than what I mailed her. But then I'm just childish.

Huggie said...

Really good blog post, Beau. You have a nice style of writing too. Although my background is in IT, I don't know the ins and outs of security as well as I could. You make it easy to understand what you're explaining here.

Rebecca said...

Beau, nice, comprehensive post! The WSJ should have published your article instead of Vara's; it was much more informative and clearly more supportive of the need for security.

A publication of the WSJ's stature should not be so irresponsible; I wonder how many of their own employees now see this as a green light to disregard the WSJ policies?

LonerVamp said...

Excellent response! :)

Purple Quill said...

Until IT cares about productivity, employees care about liability, and managers care about security, there will always be war.
We had the head of the IT department also in charge of product development for a year and watched our progress grind to a halt. Productivity problems were routinely blamed on "dumb" employees. That excuse only worked until workers threatened revolt and shareholders demanded progress. He resigned and things are much better now.