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Tiny Storage Devices Carry a Big Risk

By Douglas Schweitzer
December 13, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - We've all seen them -- portable MP3 players, sexy new iPods and "finger-size" drives in varying colors that use the ubiquitous Universal Serial Bus or FireWire port for
connectivity. While they look innocent enough, they nevertheless pose a serious security threat to organizations. In fact, some companies have banned their use outright. Unfortunately, too many others continue to ignore the potential security risks posed by the use of MP3 players, USB flash drives and other, similar high-capacity portable storage devices.
These easily concealed devices -- which employees often bring into the workplace -- can be readily plugged into any USB port, allowing users to quickly and effortlessly download sensitive corporate information. Then that information can all too easily then be taken to the outside world. Even when transgressions are unintentional, security risks abound, since portable storage devices are able to circumvent network perimeter defenses such as firewalls and antivirus products at the mail server and can introduce viruses or other malware.
In a recent Computer Security Institute/FBI Computer Crime and Security Survey, over three quarters of all respondents cited insider abuse of network access as a top security concern for companies. And rightly so, since the survey indicated that disgruntled employees were responsible for most attacks on company networks. More than $70 million was lost by organizations in just one year as a result of theft of proprietary information.
And financial losses aren't the only consideration when it comes to insider abuses. An organization's reputation may be at stake if word gets out that employees have leaked information, especially in fields where client privacy is critical, such as finance or medicine.
Gartner issued a report in July in which it cited portable storage devices as considerable workplace security risks because they may be instrumental in downloading private, proprietary information or for admitting a virus. Pocket-size hard drives that connect using FireWire or a USB hard drive or key-chain drive, disk-based MP3 players (like the iPod), memory sticks, compact flash and other memory media, and digital cameras with media cards were all identified as security threats. Especially dangerous are USB sticks, which can be easily concealed and are capable of storing up to 1GB of data.
Insider threats can lead to the loss, corruption or unavailability of information, resulting in a disruption of service to an organization's clientele. Since fraud, theft and blackmail can be accomplished more easily by insiders, employee-awareness programs and computer security policies are imperative. Restricting access to information that may be altered or misappropriated reduces exposure. An organization may be held liable for

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