How to protect your mobile data

It was two close calls that changed how Rob Israel thought about encrypting the data on his users' laptops.

A few years ago, a laptop at the John C. Lincoln Health System, a Phoenix-area hospital group where Israel is CIO, was stolen from an employee's office. It could have contained financial or (worse) patient information but, fortunately for Israel, "The laptop was brand-new and had no data on it yet," he says. Still, this pilfery and an earlier PC theft from a common work area (which resulted in a loss of noncritical data) pushed him to revisit his company's security strategy.

The result: Lincoln Health avoids storing data locally on users' computers -- PCs and laptops.

In today's workplace, it's impossible to eliminate mobile computing devices -- laptops, thumb drives, mobile phones, PDAs and iPods. If you follow the news, you know that dozens of organizations have had mobile devices lost or stolen, and many of them were not as lucky as Lincoln Health. Since California enacted a data breach notification law in 2002 (followed by 32 other states), there have been a host of embarrassing disclosures about missing computers, most recently at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Federal Trade Commission, the Transportation Department, accounting firms Deloitte & Touche and Ernst & Young (three separate occasions this year), Wells Fargo and ING banks, Fidelity Investments, the YMCA and Chevron.

About half of the states' breach-reporting laws give companies a way to avoid disclosing such breaches: the use of encryption on the mobile devices. The other states' breach laws encourage the use of encryption, as do other privacy protection laws such as the federal Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act covering financial information, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) covering medical information. Avoiding both the breach penalties and the other costs of losing critical data makes an encryption strategy well worth the effort, says Tim Mc­Knight, vice president and CISO at aerospace contractor Northrop Grumman. "We paid for our program with the savings from the first three laptops that were lost," he notes.

But encrypting data on mobile systems isn't a simple task. CIOs and CISOs have found that while the technology to encrypt laptop hard drives is pretty straightforward and simple to deploy, there are several aspects of mobile security for which technology is not yet solid, particularly for protecting data on removable media and handheld devices. That's why security leaders who have adopted encryption make sure to use other techniques -- both technological and managerial -- to protect their mobile data.

Encryption for laptops: full-disk or file-based?

The first decision when implementing an encryption strategy is whether to use full-disk encryption or file-based encryption. Because Windows XP comes with file-based encryption built in (as do Linux and Mac OS X), it's tempting to use that "free" technology. Anything stored in specific PC folders, like My Documents, is encrypted automatically. But this approach has a significant security flaw: It relies on users putting files in the encrypted folders.

Furthermore, Microsoft's encryption "is not strong, and there is no good management option for the enterprise," says Northrop's McKnight. "It's hard to manage and hard to make work with backup software," warns Paul Kocher, chief scientist for cryptography at technology consultancy Cryptography Research. Although Microsoft promises better encryption in the forthcoming Windows Vista, Kocher suggests taking that promise with a grain of salt, given Microsoft's long history of security vulnerabilities.

The other option is full-disk encryption, which protects everything on the hard drive. With this approach, there's no uncertainty as to what data is actually encrypted. "It takes human judgment out of the equation, so I can tell the regulators that the entire disk is encrypted," says Kim Jones, director of security at eFunds, an electronic transaction provider to financial institutions.

The fear, widespread among users, is that full-disk encryption will slow laptop performance. Fortunately, laptops built in the past three years or so have the horsepower to run full-disk encryption so "the performance hit is nonexistent from the user's perspective," says Jones. McKnight says a slowdown is noticeable, but just slightly. Where it's most noticeable is at system boot-up and when the laptop hibernates, he says.

Several companies -- including PGP, Pointsec and GuardianEdge Technologies -- provide enterprise-class full-disk encryption software that can be installed and managed using standard tools, and that works with backup software and password management systems. Still, enterprises should test any encryption software to make sure it is compatible with their management tools, advises Eric Maiwald, a senior analyst at the Burton Group research firm. They should have a tool to synchronize user passwords with a secure repository in case IT has to access the laptop (say when an employee forgets system passwords, is injured or leaves the company). McKnight suggests another precaution: Test hard drives before applying encryption, since the initial encryption can stress problematic hard drives to the point of failure. Although the problem was rare for the 35,000 laptops that Northrop encrypted, it does occur.

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