December 5, 2010 in Business

Companies beware: The next big leak could be yours

WikiLeaks’ methods would work just as well with corporate America
Jordan Robertson Associated Press
 

SAN FRANCISCO — WikiLeaks’ release of secret government communications is a warning to the world’s biggest companies: You may be next.

Computer experts have warned for years about the threat posed by disgruntled insiders and by poorly crafted security policies, which give too much access to confidential data. And there is nothing about WikiLeaks’ release of U.S. diplomatic documents to suggest that the group can’t — or won’t — use the same methods to reveal the secrets of powerful corporations.

And as WikiLeaks claims it has incriminating documents from a major U.S. bank, possibly Bank of America, there’s new urgency to addressing information security inside corporations and a reminder of its limits when confronted with a determined insider.

At risk are e-mails, documents, databases and internal websites that companies think are locked to the outside world. Companies create records of every decision they make, whether it’s rolling out new products, pursuing acquisitions, fighting legislation, foiling rivals or allowing executives to sell stock.

Although it’s easy technologically to limit who in a company sees specific types of information, many companies leave access settings far too open. And despite intentions, mistakes happen and settings can become inadvertently broad.

And even when security technology is doing its job, it’s a poor match if someone with legitimate access decides to go rogue.

All an insider needs to obtain and leak secrets are access and a cheap thumb drive. By contrast, outside attackers often have to hack into personal computers at the bottom of the food chain, then use their skills and guile in hopes of working their way up.

Employees go rogue all the time — for ego, to expose hypocrisy, to exact revenge or simply for greed. Despite the repeated warnings, many large companies lack clear policies on who should have access to certain data, said Christopher Glyer, a manager with the Mandiant Corp., an Alexandria, Va.-based security firm that investigates computer intrusions.

WikiLeaks argues that revealing details of companies and governments behaving badly, no matter how the information is obtained, is good for democracy.

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder, told Forbes magazine that the number of leaks his site gets has been increasing “exponentially” as the site has gotten more publicity. He said it sometimes numbers in the thousands per day.

Assange told Forbes that half the unpublished material his organization has is about the private sector, including a “megaleak” involving a bank. He would not name the bank, but he said last year in an interview with Computerworld that he has several gigabytes of data from a Bank of America executive’s hard drive. One gigabyte can hold nearly 700,000 pages of text.

Assange also told Forbes that Wikileaks has “lots” of information on BP PLC, the London-based oil company under fire for the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Companies have many options technologically to protect themselves.

Alfred Huger, vice president of engineering for security firm Immunet Corp. in Palo Alto, said companies could simply configure their e-mail servers to restrict who certain people can send documents to.

Other measures include prohibiting certain people from copying and pasting from documents, blocking downloads to thumb drives and CD-ROMs, and deploying technologies that check if executives’ e-mail messages are being checked too often — a sign that an automated program is copying the contents.

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