When will the public sector grasp basic lessons on information security?

Another day, another public sector data breach. Last month the ICO fined Greater Manchester Police £120,000 for the loss of a USB stick. The month before, the Scottish Borders Council was slapped with a £250,000 fine over dumped records.

Just last week the Information Commissioner’s Office revealed that it had fined public sector organisations over £2m in the last 18 months. It seems like we can’t get through a single month without a public sector body suffering a hefty fine over a data security blunder.

Rethinking information security
Basic lessons on information security are simply not being headed. While some public sector organisations are implementing sensible security policies and encrypting sensitive data, many are not. By now, we should have realised how a perimeter-based approach to security based on firewalls and defensive controls around the IT network is no longer sufficient when threats can come from within as well as outside.

It is high time a great many government organisations rethink their approach to information security by taking care to protect and classify data according to the sensitivity of that information.

Classifying data
To describe an overall strong security posture, we might use the term “End-to-end information security’. However, it is imperative that the public sector takes consideration of the status of different types of data so that an organisation is adequately protected. Data can be categorised in the following three ways for this purpose:

The inactive data which is physically stored in databases, spreadsheets, data warehouses, mobile devices and the like, can be referred to as “data at rest’. For the public sector, think patient records stored in NHS databases, or information from drug investigations on unencrypted USB sticks (as Manchester police got stung for).

The loss of such data might result in embarrassment, discrimination in the workplace or even the threat of physical danger for the persons concerned. From an information security viewpoint, data at rest is vulnerable and needs to be protected.

Public sector organisations should take the utmost care that sensitive data such as personal records is protected against brute force attacks with strong encryption for when basic authentication methods like username plus password fails.

Data which is transferred between two nodes in a network is “data in transit’. Examples of sensitive public sector data in transit might include confidential emails or video messages being transmitted from one computer to another, which could divulge government secrets; tax returns sent electronically which could result in theft; or even missile codes being sent from HQ to a nuclear submarine.

As a rule of thumb, organisations should assume that the network cannot be trusted. Consequently, all sensitive data must be protected with network encryption, supplemented by supplemented by SSL certificates, Internet Protocol Security (IPSec) and other precautions where relevant.

Finally, we can use the term “data in use’ to refer to that data which is being used in an in-memory state.Google Chrome, for example, loads up websites in-memory that it thinks you might like to look at next so that it operates more quickly. Government employees might keep classified web pages in-memory while browsing. Sensitive “data in use’ needs to be protected by application-level encryption and exposed on a need to know basis, encrypted as soon as possible and decrypted only when necessary. Such a selective approach to encryption can only be performed at the application level.

Encryption and key management
Public sector organisations at any level need to start classifying their data rather than their systems for different levels of protection. By doing this, they can protect the public’s personal data and their own reputations as well as avoiding the significant fines imposed for data breaches. Data loss or theft, either through human error or malicious intent, whether internal or external, are both costly and dangerous.

We must remember, however, that while encryption should be the bedrock of any data security policy, it is only effective if encryption keys are adequately protected. It is vital that the public sector employs a high-grade key management solution that adheres to the Key Management Interoperability Protocol (KMIP). Only then can the government fulfil its duty of protecting sensitive information.

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