Laptop secure but not

There’s lots of news about the latest release of classified documents on Wikileaks. If you want to have a peek, The Guardian has a great visualisation to get started.

I had a mooch. Everything I scanned through was thoroughly boring. As is the case with most information, even the classified stuff.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve worked with numerous government organisations. When discussing intranets, collaborative sites and knowledge management systems, one of the most frequent concerns is how to secure access to information and prevent the wrong eyes from seeing it. It is no small irony that the first ever monetary fines applied by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) this month were for breaches that had nothing to do with networks.

The first was a £100,000 fine against Hertfordshire County Council for two incidents of faxing highly sensitive personal information to the wrong people. The second was a £60,000 fine against an employment services company for the loss of a laptop.

Here’s another example. A fair few years ago, I was in Luxembourg to present at an EU event. The night before the meeting I was in my hotel room when an envelope appeared under the door. Assuming it was details about the event, I opened it and pulled out the documents. The first hint that the documents might not be to do with the event was seeing Restricted stamped across the top of the first page. The second indication was, when scanning the content, it became apparent the documents were something to do with nuclear weapons facilities across Europe. By that point, I looked at the front of the envelope to discover that it wasn’t addressed to Miss S Richardson (i.e. me) but was instead addressed to <insert very senior military rank I can’t remember> Richardson. A rather terse conversation took place in the hotel reception as the documents were forwarded to their rightful recipient.

All three examples above were security breaches due to stupid human error. None involved networks or bypassing security systems. But only one required legal intervention – the faxing of content to the wrong people that was both legally confidential and highly sensitive.

And that’s the rub. Most security leaks don’t matter. A few years ago, some idiot in the UK tax office HMRC downloaded oodles of personal details to a CD and then lost it in the post. If there has been a bout of serious identity theft as a result, I haven’t heard about it. Ditto for a more recent breach that managed to send addresses and bank details to the wrong people. More people have been affected by a cock-up in the calculation of tax due to incorrect data than from identity theft due to lost data.

Most of the content on Wikileaks is embarassing to its targets (usually governments and/or large corporations) rather than dangerous. Yes there are exceptions, such as the failure to redact personally incriminating information from documents that could put lives in danger. But they are the exception, rather than the norm we tend to assume when documents are classified as confidential.

One of the recommendations I give to clients looking to improve the use and value of their intranets is to devalue information. Make it easier to access. The confidentiality of most content is over-rated. It’s importance and usefulness to other people is often under-rated.

For most organisations, content falls into one of three categories:

  • Legal – fines and prison (though that is rare) may result from failing to protect legal documents
  • Sensitive – contains information that could put at risk or be damaging to an individual or organisation
  • Everything else

There’s no arguing over legal documents. No prizes for guessing at least most content falls (or should) under Everything Else. And sensitive…whilst some is easily justified (such as research into a new prototype that you wouldn’t want your competitors knowing about) an awful lot is considered sensitive purely to avoid embarrassment or conflict. Sometimes people should question verbalising their opinions, let alone putting them in writing… And if you work in government, for goodness sake don’t save it on your laptop!

One closing quote whilst on the subject of securing information. Whilst it refers to anonymity, it equally applies to trying to hide information from public view, which too often appears to be the reason for confidential classifications: (apologies, I can’t recall the source)

Providing a level of anonymity is great for play but prevents accountability

References and examples:

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