When stolen data can ‘phone home’

Digital ‘watermarking’ won’t prevent your data from being stolen, but it can let you find out about it much more quickly than the average of seven months it takes organizations to discover a breach

watermarked map
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Tracking devices is nothing new. In the auto industry, multiple vendors compete to convince drivers to install the devices in their cars, promising that if it gets stolen, the cops will know right where to find it. In law enforcement, criminals on probation sometimes are required to wear an ankle bracelet that does the same thing – tells authorities exactly where they are.

It is also possible to do that with data. Digital watermarking can track where it is being viewed or downloaded, and also identify the IP address and the type of device doing it. It is not in widespread use, according to experts, and could in some cases have privacy implications, but its advocates say while it doesn’t prevent a data breach, it can let an organization that has been breached know about it almost immediately, instead of months later.

Their mantra is: Breaches are not preventable, but they are discoverable.”

As Rich Campagna, vice president, products, at Bitglass put it, “The average data breach goes undetected for seven months. Identifying a breach early can help prevent further exfiltration and render breached data useless,” by, for example, canceling and reissuing credit cards before they can be sold.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of watermarking and to illustrate how widely stolen data can “travel”, Bitglass created a fake data file earlier this year of 1,568 names, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, addresses and phone numbers. It watermarked the file and then posted it anonymously to DropBox plus seven other sites on the Dark Web suspected of being cybercrime marketplaces.

According to the company, the watermarking can survive copying, pasting and other file manipulations. Every time the file is opened, it “calls home” with information on where and how it was accessed.

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