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Perimeter

5/21/2012
10:08 AM
Amy DeCarlo
Amy DeCarlo
Commentary
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Overlook The Obvious And Risk Everything

Failure to follow fundamental common-sense security policies can produce disastrous results, as the state of Utah discovered

Ideally, security should be a multilayered process replete with the appropriate checks and balances to close any gaps that could expose information to a potential breach. However, in practice, far too often organizations fail to execute on what are typically thorough and well-designed policies they lay out exactly what controls should be in place to protect precious organizational and client information.

A classic example of this kind of misfire is the recent breach of hundreds of thousands of patient records from the Medicaid server at the Utah Department of Health. A number of very preventable mistakes made it relatively easy for cyberthieves to access approximate 280,000 medical files, complete with Social Security numbers and other personally identifiable information (PII), as well as many as 500,000 additional records.

The Utah data breach made headlines again last week when Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert announced he had accepted the resignation of state chief information officer Stephen Fletcher and ordered an independent audit of the security covering all of the state's IT systems. The resignation was tendered at the governor's request after an investigation of the incident found that under Fletcher's direction, the state's IT department failed to follow a number of procedures and policies that potentially foiled the attack.

For one thing, the compromised server was installed by an outside contractor who may not have had full knowledge of policies -- an exception to normal procedure. The contractor reportedly did not change the default factory passwords on the system. No audit took place that caught that mistake -- or the fact that Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)-protected data was stored unencrypted on the server and apparently without adequate firewall protection -- essentially leaving cyberattackers thought to be from Eastern Europe with a wide open door to a wealth of information.

While the attack serves as an unfortunate cautionary tale to other organizations that carelessness can bring about some terrible results, at least anecdotally, it appears that enterprises are taking more care with respect to protecting their most confidential, sensitive, and high-value information. However, the reality is that far too many vulnerabilities are still going unaddressed.

All businesses and government organizations should look at the Utah breach as more than just a water-cooler conversation starter. Instead, use the incident as an opportunity to assess whether there is a gulf between their best-laid security policy and production mentality. And if there is an issue, the organization should prioritize where it needs to make corrections based on the value and sensitivity of the impacted resources.

In Utah's case, beyond the personnel changes and the system audit, the state is also stepping up its data protection plans for regulated and sensitive information. The state will now reportedly encrypt high-risk data both at rest and in motion.

Amy DeCarlo is principal analyst for security and data center services at Current Analysis Amy brings 17 years of IT industry experience to her position as Principal Analyst, Security and Data Center Services. Amy assesses the managed IT services sector, with an emphasis on security and data center solutions delivered through the cloud including on demand ... View Full Bio

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