IT managers see portable storage device security risk

How much damage can an iPod or memory stick do? Plenty, say analysts

Lenny Goodman, an IS director at Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp. in Memphis, said his company recently found itself dealing with a proliferation of user-owned plug-and-play USB port drives that posed a security risk to sensitive patient data.

“The new paradigm is that it was hard to copy much data to a floppy disk, and we did not allow CD writers. Suddenly, though, comes the USB flash drive with enormous capacity, zero installation, etc. Very handy, very risky—risky both as a way for data to leave, and a way for malware to arrive,” Goodman said. “We had to do something.”

The result: Baptist Memorial created strict policies around the use of flash memory sticks, iPods and other portable storage devices by standardizing on USB memory sticks that have native encryption and password protection. “HIPAA mandates that all health care organizations develop a methodology to account for all removable media,” Goodman said.

But with more than 42 million of Apple Computer Inc.’s iPods sold so far in the U.S. alone, the threat of data theft or loss from downloading information on a USB-port device is growing exponentially, according to analysts.

“An iPod is just storage at the end of a wire,” said John Webster, a senior analyst and founder of Data Mobility Group in Nashua, N.H. “You already see people running around with iPods, using them as backup devices. USB storage devices are a potential source of data leakage.”

In reaction to IT managers’ concerns about data loss threats, IT vendors are offering security for flash memory devices.

Kingston's USB flash drive
Kingston's USB flash drive

Kingston Technology Company Inc. this week introduced a USB flash drive that secures data using password protection and 128-bit hardware-based AES encryption.

Offering up to 4GB of secure storage, Kingston’s DTE Privacy Edition device is designed to meet enterprise-level security and compliance requirements. The drive has a mechanism that locks out potential users after 25 consecutive failed password attempts.

Last month, SanDisk Corp. in Sunnyvale, Calif., announced that it will bolster security in its line of USB flash drives and mobile cards using TrustedFlash technology. TrustedFlash combines SanDisk’s 32-bit controller architecture with an embedded cryptographic engine to provide real-time encryption.

Eric Ouellet, vice president of research for security at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said that only about 10% of enterprises have any policies dealing with removable storage devices.

“It’s actually a fairly big problem,” Ouellet said. “You’ve got so much space on these things now. You can go for an iPod or MP3 player and you’ve got 60GB or more on them. You can put a small database on them. It’s just a matter of time before we hear about someone losing data because of this.”

He suggests that companies consider flash drive monitoring software on PCs and laptops from companies such as Pointsec Mobile Technologies, Inc. in Stockholm and Utimaco Safeware Inc. in Foxboro, Mass., which can lock out USB drives or require that they to have encryption and password protection to work.

For a free but unsophisticated solution, Ouellet said companies can use the native lockout capabilities in the Windows platform.

Vimal Vaidya, CEO of Freemont, Calif.-based Red Cannon Security Inc., said he began beta-testing Kingston’s encrypted drive about nine months ago. His company now owns hundreds of them and resells them with its own encryption and password protection, as well as with device monitoring and reporting software.

“You can track users of USB-port devices and monitor what gets copied onto a device and what’s taken off the device. You can also set policies on how device should be used,” Vaidya said.

Kingston said it is targeting the enterprise and the B2B market with its memory stick. The company’s product road map includes bundling the USB device with software that enables IT staffers to set role-based security access to ports, meaning the device can be set to be read-only for some users. Another software offering planned by Kingston will manage the flow of data to a USB drive and create an audit trail.

Baptist Memorial, which currently uses the 1GB version of Kingston’s USB drive, is a $1 billion corporation with 20 hospitals and a network of outpatient and ambulatory surgery facilities, clinics, and other health care facilities.

Goodman said that besides the security risk, his company is trying to curb inappropriate use of corporate resources, so it also deployed a USB port monitoring and policy enforcement application from Philadelphia-based Safend Inc.

“We feel we are ahead of our industry in general in recognizing the extreme exposure of ultra-small, ultra-capacity plug-and-play USB devices,” Goodman said.

Apple officials were asked about whether they have plans to bolster security on iPod products, but declined to comment.;

Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp., in Memphis, took a four-pronged approach to securing data that could be leaked through portable devices:

1. Conduct executive and administrative awareness programs and develop an administrative policy that was enforceable.

2. Audit the IT environment and find all attached devices (USB, serial, Fire Wire, wireless and infrared).

3. Implement port control technology and turn off specific devices that did not have a legitimate business justification and approval.

4. Provide a corporate standard device for approved data transport purposes.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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