Finding Production Data in Development Environments

Andrew Froehlich, Network Engineer & IT Consultant | 6/6/2013 | 10 comments

Andrew Froehlich
One of the biggest challenges for IT security engineers is containing sensitive data. Pinpointing where your company's PII, PHI, and PCI data resides within various production datacenters, collocations, public/private clouds, and DR environments is a major task. The difficulty increases when employees copy and move sensitive data for various purposes. Software developers are notorious for this; they sometimes take a shortcut by using production data in development environments.

Most systems development practices center on a life cycle that includes development, testing, QA, staging, and production. On enterprise networks, these stages are segregated into completely separate network and server environments. When changes or upgrades need to be made to a production application, they are validated first in one or more developer environments. It's usually during this testing period when developers borrow a copy of production data to use for testing.

If your developers are in the habit of using production data in environments other than where it is intended, it is a security issue for two reasons. First, the data could contain sensitive information about customers, partners, and employees. Because it's being copied and deployed in multiple environments, tracking this data can become nearly impossible.

The second issue is that many networks are designed to provide added layers of IT security for production environments while lessening security on others. This is because it is assumed that the data being stored and processed in these environments is not sensitive in nature. It will be easier for hackers to break into these less secure test environments and poach any production data that is being copied over there.

The solution to this problem is twofold. First, IT security admins must train developers to break their habit of using real data in environments other than production. Instead, mock or test data should be created and used for testing purposes. It might take a while longer to get clean test data, but in the end, it's well worth the extra effort. Second, production data must be locked down to the point where only a handful of trusted employees can access it. Very few people should have direct access to this data; this makes it much easier to track down if breaches occur.

Once these two simple goals are accomplished, security administrators can breathe a bit easier knowing that their production data isn't floating around in an insecure test environment.

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Marif   Finding Production Data in Development Environments   7/1/2013 8:37:47 AM
Re: Test data
@Sara: I have also been working developers for quite a long time now and I have seen such situations when a major problem arise which get all the senior management on their toes. A single developer is working to resolve the issue and all the seniors are literally standing behind him, making the situation more miserable for him.

Another problem is the issue is not always in the specific area of the application where it raised an error which makes it even more difficult to identify. Like in a recent scenario an error occurred in the End Of Day of the system halting the whole reconciliation process and the reason was a bad transaction done during the day time.
Sara Peters   Finding Production Data in Development Environments   6/30/2013 8:43:53 PM
Re: Test data
@Marif  Ah, interesting. So often people blame developers for not generating fixes fast enough, but most people forget about the amount of time it might take to reproduce the problem that needs to be fixed. I'll be much more sympathetic to the developers I work with from now on.
Marif   Finding Production Data in Development Environments   6/26/2013 9:44:11 AM
Re: Test data
@shehan: But in case we have an error in production some times to reproduce the fault in the test environment require the production data for early fix. Otherwise I have seen some cases where developers took quite a long time to reproduce the fault.
shehan   Finding Production Data in Development Environments   6/26/2013 3:52:39 AM
Re: Test data
@Salik. Yes you are correct. Sometimes there can be instances, where the test data will not support the real software developed. It needs to plug in to the live database. Once there was an instance, where we had to use the production environment in order to test whether the data table is getting updated.
shehan   Finding Production Data in Development Environments   6/26/2013 3:06:05 AM
Re: Test data
"Instead, mock or test data should be created and used for testing purposes." Well we are point to be happy as we already practice this at our work place.
shehan   Finding Production Data in Development Environments   6/26/2013 3:04:23 AM
Re: Test data
Interesting article. We have separate test environment with the latest month end backup in order to do the developments. Once the developments are completed and tested it will be moved to the production environment.
Salik   Finding Production Data in Development Environments   6/11/2013 12:59:05 PM
Re: Test data
Good point made Andrew, this does add to the security aspect of the data. The tradeoffs would be there always, cost vs security. 
Andrew Froehlich   Finding Production Data in Development Environments   6/7/2013 2:59:27 PM
Re: Test data
@Salik and ProgMan -- if mock data isn't identical to real data then their will clearly be problems. And you are right, those bugs that are discovered later on will indeed add to costs. But everyone needs to keep in mind that security isn't free and this is one of those examples of how better security can indirectly increase the cost of other parts of the business.
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ProgMan   Finding Production Data in Development Environments   6/7/2013 2:54:17 PM
I suffer from this problem all the time
dealing with PHI data.  As Salik points out, there are some problems you are just never going to find using test data.  And consider that, depending on the nature of the bug, something could be put into production that introduces a system wide vulnerability where all data is compromised - simply because it was test using test data.

Is there not a middle ground here?  Something along the lines of IT Security Admins provide the subset of production data for testing purposes and then eliminate once it's finished?  
Salik   Finding Production Data in Development Environments   6/7/2013 12:48:59 AM
Test data
Great article Andrew, one thing that concerns me is the running of test cases on the test data. In my practical experience, I have noticed that running the real data on the software system after it has been tested on the test data more or less gives errors that would therefore not be identified using the test data. I mean, there are conditions that could not be found until the real data is ran on the system. Won't it just multiple the cost and effort to remove the later known bugs found after running the real data?

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