And Now for the Rest of the Data…

In the first two issues I spent time looking at the need for states to pay attention to the digital health and safety of their citizens, followed by the oft forgotten need to understand and protect the non-production data. This is data than has often proliferated and also ignored or forgotten about.

In many ways, non-production data is simpler to protect. Development and test systems can usually work effectively with realistic but not real PII data and realistic but not real volumes of data. On the other hand, production systems need the real production data complete with the wealth of information that enables individuals to be identified – and therefore presents a huge risk. If and when that data is compromised either deliberately or accidentally the consequences can be enormous; in the impact on the individual citizens and also the cost of remediation on the state. Many will remember the massive South Carolina data breach of late 2012 when over the course of 2 days a 74 GB database was downloaded and stolen, around 3.8 million payers and 1.9 million dependents had their social security information stolen and 3.3 million “lost” bank account details. The citizens’ pain didn’t end there, as the company South Carolina picked to help its citizens seems to have tried to exploit the situation.

encryption protects against data theft - unless the key is stolen too
Encryption protects against theft – unless the key is stolen too

The biggest problem with securing production data is that there are numerous legitimate users and uses of that data, and most often just a small number of potentially malicious or accidental attempts of inappropriate or dangerous access. So the question is… how does a state agency protect its citizens’ sensitive data while at the same time ensuring that legitimate uses and users continues – without performance impacts or any disruption of access? Obviously each state needs to make its own determination as to what approach works best for them.

This video does a good job at explaining the scope of the overall data privacy/security problems and also reviews a number of successful approaches to protecting sensitive data in both production and non-production environments. What you’ll find is that database encryption is just the start and is fine if the database is “stolen” (unless of course the key is stolen along with the data! Encryption locks the data away in the same way that a safe protects physical assets – but the same problem exists. If the key is stolen with the safe then all bets are off. Legitimate users are usually easily able deliberately breach and steal the sensitive contents, and it’s these latter occasions we need to understand and protect against. Given that the majority of data breaches are “inside jobs” we need to ensure that authorized users (end-users, DBAs, system administrators and so on) that have legitimate access only have access to the data they absolutely need, no more and no less.

So we have reached the end of the first series. In the first blog we looked at the need for states to place the same emphasis on the digital health and welfare of their citizens as they do on their physical and mental health. In the second we looked at the oft-forgotten area of non-production (development, testing, QA etc.) data. In this third and final piece we looked at the need to and some options for providing the complete protection of non-production data.