So much data, so little security -- what happens if your city gets hacked?

Microsoft's Craig Mundie offers security suggestions to MIT Emtech conference; other experts tout smart cities technology

CAMBRIDGE, MA -- Businesses and individuals had better brace themselves for new security realities as society moves away from traditional data sharing equations that have worked well for a couple of decades.

To date, users have agreed to give away certain discrete pieces of information -- such as a name or email addresses -- in exchange for something -- a product or a service, for instance.

That situation is no longer viable, Craig Mundie, senior advisor to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, told attendees at the Emtech conference held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) here today.

Mundie said that today, significant amounts of data are collected, much of it without the user's knowledge, and is used in ways not always clear at the time of collection.

For instance, a mobile phone app may ask for permission to use your location data, but it isn't always apparent or disclosed how that data will be used downstream. Your answer to such a request may depend on whether the data will be posted to Facebook or used to guide you via GPS to a meeting. So a straight yes or no answer may not be enough, and you need to be able to control this, Mundie said.

"We're talking about the legal acquisition of data," Mundie said. "We need a usage-based way of controlling it, with a cryptographic wrapper and then policies and laws that govern usage."

He called for a new class of felony for people or organizations that subvert these policies. Without such a change, "the penalty is too low" and people will continue to subvert the laws.

Also, Mundie said, a cryptographic wrapper will be needed for each classification of personal data that is collected that states the rules about where and how it can be shared. Sometimes the individual will control access to the data. In other cases, society may mandate, for example, that some types of health, security or other types of remain available, even anonymized, for the greater good. "This is going to go both ways."

The wrappers would be akin to the digital rights management systems that now protect movie or music ownership, where people or companies hold keys that allow appropriate use of the information.

Such rules won't be static, he said.

"You need to be able to change your mind as an individual and as a society. You can't write the rules in advance, you have to wait until the app emerges and gets to scale, that you can figure out you don't like it," Mundie said.

On a corporate level, the stakes are rising as well, he said.

In the past 12 months there's been a shift away from what Mundie called "nuisance" attacks toward "we don't like you and we're going to take you down."

Companies need to decide what assets are of critical value, where their loss would be of such a nature that the company could go out of business. Mundie termed it "life or death. It's a survivability question of what happens if you lose certain things." Today's traditional IT security methods are no longer adequate, he said.

One Mundie suggestion: Partition the essential information "so it doesn't exist in any one place at the same time."

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