The Snowden Leaks & Enterprise Security

Aaron Weiss, Tech Journalist / Humorist | 7/2/2013 | 30 comments

Aaron Weiss
To say that the Edward Snowden leaks raise a lot of issues would be the understatement of the year.

Despite some of the hardened conclusions being drawn around the Internet and in the media, it is important to remember that the leaked documents are incomplete, at times vague, and interpreted through the lens of Snowden himself and the political journalists he has allied with. None of which automatically discredits them, but does leave us still with a fairly fuzzy picture of what Internet surveillance reality actually looks like.

Most of the coverage about the leaks has focused on the implications for individual privacy. But business needs privacy too, and everyone uses the same Internet. Since we really don't know precisely which interpretations of the leaks are exactly true, we can at least consider how the interpretations of the leaks inform enterprise data security.

Metadata collection
One of the leaks shines a light on US government metadata collection of email communications. This is actually one of the more specific leaks, and has apparently been acknowledged by US officials, although they say it no longer continues. Still, it is not unreasonable to prepare for the possibility that metadata collection could begin again. The metadata collected by the government is said to include raw email envelopes -- meaning not only "From" and "To" fields, but even BCC data, which is ultimately stripped from messages downstream before reaching the recipient. Although the actual message bodies are supposedly not collected, it has already been demonstrated that a lot can be gleaned from metadata alone.

While the government stands by its claim that metadata collection is intended to target communications with overseas parties based on the origin and destination of messages, businesses routinely engage overseas parties. By this logic, it suggests that a significant amount of business communication metadata can be collected under this "foreign parties" rationale.

Email encryption can be an effective way to foil surveillance of communication content, but it does nothing to stop metadata collection. So what is an enterprise to do if they want to stay out of government fishing nets? The best option would be to deploy a self-hosted messaging system. Yet, the enterprise seems to be moving away from this direction toward cloud-hosted email.

Protecting user privacy
Many businesses necessarily accumulate data on customers. And if you're any kind of service business you may even be hosting customers' data itself, be it communications or media. With all of the concern stoked by the leaks about Prism, customers may now have heightened awareness and demands regarding protection of their own privacy. The government has powers to compel businesses to reveal data in certain circumstances (although precisely which circumstances, and how broadly, is very much part of the debate and not well illuminated by the Snowden leaks). This can put many an enterprise in a difficult position, between the potential demands of both government and private individuals.

It is impossible to eliminate this conflict, but just how exposed a company is can be mitigated. Data retention policies can be key to minimizing a business' surface area to privacy threats. Most network activity naturally generates an abundance of information which, in an era of cheap storage, is easy to archive and shove into a cybercorner forever. A better choice would be to audit what kind of data your business collects and the absolutely maximum amount of time it needs to be retained. Likewise, data that is not necessary to collect probably shouldn't be kept. The goal here is to be able to ensure customers that their privacy is being maximally maintained, while being unable to be forced to turn over to authorities data that simply doesn't exist.

Leak control
Leak control isn't just for diapers anymore. Preventing employees or contractors from leaking information your company needs to protect is vital. We still don't know exactly how deep Snowden penetrated into national security database versus how much he skimmed off the top. Still, that he could apparently walk out with a thumb drive full of officially classified documents (regardless of what they do or do not actually reveal) should be a wake-up call to every enterprise.

It may be impossible to stop a highly motivated leaker with deep access credentials, but business can still apply the principles of a digital firewall -- define access credentials as restrictively as necessary -- to defend against casual or even accidentals leaks.

And, if at all possible, make sure you aren't hiding anything a whistleblower might feel like revealing. It is one thing to have legitimate corporate secrets, but lies are far more likely when you provide motivation. There are likely more implications as we determine exactly what was true out of the information Snowden leaked, but even if a fraction of what has emerged is true, these are great places to start.

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MDMConsult   The Snowden Leaks & Enterprise Security   8/1/2013 6:42:38 PM
Re: Ugh
@Nomi Yes, to reduce security risk. I think we also would see challenges arise in reaching users and driving innovation. Organizations have to find out the best ways to minimize security risks while at the same time leverage there technologies to benefit the company.
Nomi   The Snowden Leaks & Enterprise Security   7/13/2013 7:34:50 AM
Re: Ugh
Anand right. But their is whole new concept of BYOD. I think restricting the use of own devices might not conflict with the concept which is expanding quite fast in the industry. But yes you are right that national security is paramount.
Nomi   The Snowden Leaks & Enterprise Security   7/11/2013 6:14:56 AM
Re: Ugh
Henrisha you are right. Wikileaks might be the motivation factor for snowden but they are two different things and will have two different consequences. But the end result will be same a wild goose chase and see who will win.
Nomi   The Snowden Leaks & Enterprise Security   7/10/2013 6:33:30 AM
Re: Ugh
Anand right. But the recent media news are giving a total different story. Most of the russian parlimentarians are against snowdown stay in russia. They are asking their government to take a quick decision and ask him to leave. I think what they are predicting is Venuzuela as the next stop for snowdown. I always wonder why these people of government start working against it. First wikileaks and then this. I feel there is much more to come.
Henrisha   The Snowden Leaks & Enterprise Security   7/9/2013 3:32:29 AM
Re: American cloud providers are probably frustrated with the government
I admire Neelie Kroes (always have) and I think what she said here is a gem of wisdom.
Henrisha   The Snowden Leaks & Enterprise Security   7/9/2013 3:32:10 AM
Re: Ugh
I would agree that Snowden learned a lot from Wikileaks, but I wouldn't say he was directly inspired by Assange. I would assume that different factors pushed him to do what he did; Assange has received support from others who fight for the proliferation of truth, so that might have encouraged him as well.
SunitaT   The Snowden Leaks & Enterprise Security   7/4/2013 4:29:34 PM
Re: Ugh
I believe Snowden read the full book on Wikileaks, and learned by their mistakes.

@DBK, good point. Do you think Snowden actually got inspired by Assange ? Do you think these incidents will inspire many more to follow the path of Assange and Snowden?
Anand   The Snowden Leaks & Enterprise Security   7/4/2013 4:08:57 PM
Re: Ugh
But the press release from russian media says that they will not consider political assylum for snowden till the time he stops speaking against the USA.

@Nomi, True Russian has made it clear that Russia would not hand former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden over to the United States but that if Snowden wants to stay in Russia he "must stop his work aimed at harming our American partners." I am not sure if they real mean that or they wants show to the america they care for them.
Aaron Weiss   The Snowden Leaks & Enterprise Security   7/4/2013 11:04:46 AM
The Snowden Leaks
Thanks everyone for your comments.

I will propose a theory about why it may be that Snowden is having a hard time finding asylum. It has come as a surprise to some people that China/HK backpedaled from him and Russia has taken a more sympathetic stance to US interests than expected. Even Ecuador seems to be having cold feet.

Economic or political pressure from the US may play some part in this. But I am going to guess there is more to it than that. Which is this: the US surveillance programs that Snowden is generating interest in are probably not unique. It seems naive to think in this day and age that any country with the resources to mine intelligence data from digital communications is not doing so to the maximum extent of its technical and legal abilities. Many countries have far fewer reservations and legal obstacles to this than even the US. In short, "everyone is doing it" -- in some cases probably even worse -- and they'd really rather not be talking about it in public.

The hesitancy to grant asylum to Snowden could be motivated by these other countries own desire to keep their surveillance efforts under the radar. Whether Snowden has more information or protecting him would encourage leakers in other countries, these countries may feel that Snowden is a can of worms for them, too, that they'd rather not open.

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Pablo Valerio   The Snowden Leaks & Enterprise Security   7/4/2013 10:43:53 AM
American cloud providers are probably frustrated with the government
This is what Neelie Kroes, VP of the European Commission thinks:

If European cloud customers cannot trust the United States government or their assurances, then maybe they won't trust US cloud providers either. That is my guess. And if I am right then there are multi-billion euro consequences for American companies.
If I were an American cloud provider, I would be quite frustrated with my government right now. I do not have an agenda here: I am committed to open markets, to liberal values, and the opportunities of new digital innovations. Yet even I am thinking twice about whether there is such a thing as a level playing field when it comes to the cloud.
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