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Daphne Caruana Galizia’s Murder and the Security of WhatsApp

Daphne Caruana Galizia was a Maltese journalist whose anti-corruption investigations exposed powerful people. She was murdered in October by a car bomb.

Galizia used WhatsApp to communicate securely with her sources. Now that she is dead, the Maltese police want to break into her phone or the app, and find out who those sources were.

One journalist reports:

Part of Daphne’s destroyed smart phone was elevated from the scene.

Investigators say that Caruana Galizia had not taken her laptop with her on that particular trip. If she had done so, the forensic experts would have found evidence on the ground.

Her mobile phone is also being examined, as can be seen from her WhatsApp profile, which has registered activity since the murder. But it is understood that the data is safe.

Sources close to the newsroom said that as part of the investigation her sim card has been cloned. This is done with the help of mobile service providers in similar cases. Asked if her WhatsApp messages or any other messages that were stored in her phone will be retrieved, the source said that since the messaging application is encrypted, the messages cannot be seen. Therefore it is unlikely that any data can be retrieved.

I am less optimistic than that reporter. The FBI is providing “specific assistance.” The article doesn’t explain that, but I would not be surprised if they were helping crack the phone.

It will be interesting to see if WhatsApp’s security survives this. My guess is that it depends on how much of the phone was recovered from the bombed car.

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Photocopier Security

A modern photocopier is basically a computer with a scanner and printer attached. This computer has a hard drive, and scans of images are regularly stored on that drive. This means that when a photocopier is thrown away, that hard drive is filled with pages that the machine copied over its lifetime. As you might expect, some of those pages will contain sensitive information.

This 2011 report was written by the Inspector General of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). It found that the organization did nothing to safeguard its photocopiers.

Our audit found that opportunities exist to strengthen controls to ensure photocopier hard drives are protected from potential exposure. Specifically, we found the following weaknesses.

  • NARA lacks appropriate controls to ensure all photocopiers across the agency are accounted for and that any hard drives residing on these machines are tracked and properly sanitized or destroyed prior to disposal.

  • There are no policies documenting security measures to be taken for photocopiers utilized for general use nor are there procedures to ensure photocopier hard drives are sanitized or destroyed prior to disposal or at the end of the lease term.

  • Photocopier lease agreements and contracts do not include a “keep disk”1 or similar clause as required by NARA’s IT Security Methodology for Media Protection Policy version 5.1.

I don’t mean to single this organization out. Pretty much no one thinks about this security threat.

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The Security of Data Deletion

Thousands of articles have called the December attack against Sony Pictures a wake-up call to industry. Regardless of whether the attacker was the North Korean government, a disgruntled former employee, or a group of random hackers, the attack showed how vulnerable a large organization can be and how devastating the publication of its private correspondence, proprietary data, and intellectual property can be.

But while companies are supposed to learn that they need to improve their security against attack, there’s another equally important but much less discussed lesson here: companies should have an aggressive deletion policy.

One of the social trends of the computerization of our business and social communications tools is the loss of the ephemeral. Things we used to say in person or on the phone we now say in e-mail, by text message, or on social networking platforms. Memos we used to read and then throw away now remain in our digital archives. Big data initiatives mean that we’re saving everything we can about our customers on the remote chance that it might be useful later.

Everything is now digital, and storage is cheap­ — why not save it all?

Sony illustrates the reason why not. The hackers published old e-mails from company executives that caused enormous public embarrassment to the company. They published old e-mails by employees that caused less-newsworthy personal embarrassment to those employees, and these messages are resulting in class-action lawsuits against the company. They published old documents. They published everything they got their hands on.

Saving data, especially e-mail and informal chats, is a liability.

It’s also a security risk: the risk of exposure. The exposure could be accidental. It could be the result of data theft, as happened to Sony. Or it could be the result of litigation. Whatever the reason, the best security against these eventualities is not to have the data in the first place.

If Sony had had an aggressive data deletion policy, much of what was leaked couldn’t have been stolen and wouldn’t have been published.

An organization-wide deletion policy makes sense. Customer data should be deleted as soon as it isn’t immediately useful. Internal e-mails can probably be deleted after a few months, IM chats even more quickly, and other documents in one to two years. There are exceptions, of course, but they should be exceptions. Individuals should need to deliberately flag documents and correspondence for longer retention. But unless there are laws requiring an organization to save a particular type of data for a prescribed length of time, deletion should be the norm.

This has always been true, but many organizations have forgotten it in the age of big data. In the wake of the devastating leak of terabytes of sensitive Sony data, I hope we’ll all remember it now.

This essay previously appeared on ArsTechnica.com, which has comments from people who strongly object to this idea.

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