Corporate security threats many times come from customers, business partners

Companies wonder: Is the guy we do business with secure?

While a company can do everything possible for its own network security, in the age of e-commerce and online banking that's not enough. Increasingly, IT managers have to ask, Is the guy we do business with the loose wire in security?

The answer may be "yes" because the customer, client and trading partner isn't meeting expectations about secure data-sharing, such as using encryption to shield sensitive information. And when their PCs are hijacked by cybercrooks or their employees transmit sensitive data in a way that violates regulatory statutes, suddenly it's your company's problem, too.

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In healthcare, data related to personal health information (PHI) and personally identifiable information (PII) which is transmitted to business partners has to be kept confidential through encryption, notes Richard DeRoche, corporate director of information technology at for Lutheran Life Communities. The healthcare provider, with eight locations and 1,600 employees, provides older adults with retirement facilities, home care and nursing services in Illinois, Indiana and Florida.

But when Lutheran Life Communities installed a data-loss prevention device -- in this case, one from Palisade Systems -- to make sure PHI and PII data transmissions were sent correctly, the big shock was the discovery that it was business partners that had issues.

"85% to 90% of the violations are inbound," says DeRoche, noting that while employees at Lutheran Life Communities were, by and large, following instructions about encrypting sensitive data, the healthcare provider's business partners and even a state agency were the ones making the most mistakes in that regard.

That ignited debate in the legal division at Lutheran Life Communities as to whether the company should even be accepting email that appears to violate rules such as HIPAA and the HITECH Act, regulations that carry punishment and fines for violations.

DeRoche says the company has decided to start sending warning messages back to the originators of email that violates its security and privacy policy, saying the company can't willingly accept the messages in their current form. He notes there's a need to establish more business-partner agreements where these type of data-protection issues are spelled out in advance.

Lutheran Life Communities, which like many firms has not found it easy to establish a way to get myriad business partners using encryption, set up Microsoft SharePoint as an external portal intended for business partners to share confidential data with the company. It's a password- and encryption-based system that works but is a tad "awkward" for end users, DeRoche notes.

Banking is another industry where mistakes made by others have an unwanted impact.

Cybercriminals are proving adept in tricking both retail and corporate online banking customers, sometimes carrying out elaborate scams to lure victims to fake phishing sites to steal account information or even hijacking PCs with Trojan software to make fraudulent transactions through Automated Clearinghouse (ACH) services.

The criminals can remotely initiate large-dollar payments right through the victim's desktop computer, and these unauthorized payments end up in the bank accounts of the money mules helping them. Corporate bank customers, when they discover what happened, have to plead their case with the banks, and under the law, corporate customers don't have the same sort of fraud protections for lost amounts in this regard as consumers in online banking.

Some banks are moving more forcefully to try to prevent these types of attacks on their customers and the banking system.

For example, Fairfield County Bank, based in Connecticut, has decided in order to prevent attacks, it will require its corporate ACH banking customers -- about 80 companies with several hundred end users -- to make use of a specific security protection for ACH payments.

All of the bank's customers will get a IronKey Trusted Access for Banking token, which is a secure USB token that can be managed via the IronKey cloud-based service. The handheld IronKey USB device, plugged into a computer, aims to protect against keylogging and browser-based attacks and malware by essentially creating a controlled online work environment separate from the user's operating system.

"It will be required," says Christina Bodine, assistant vice president, cash-management office and business e-banking, at Fairfield County Bank.

She says the mandatory security device will help protect the customer and differentiate the bank's services. Like other banks, Fairfield County Bank recommends bank customers use dedicated machines for funds transfer, but doesn't require it.

Another financial institution, Bank of North Carolina, is also offering the IronKey USB token -- complete with the bank's logo on it -- to customers, says Debbie Myers, BNC senior vice president of e-banking and business services manager. But the bank, which is charging a monthly service fee for it, is not planning to make use of IronKey mandatory.

"We're providing it as an option at this time to our customers," says Myers, adding customers are still learning about it and the bank is reluctant to make it a requirement.

Learn more about this topic

ZeuS-style banking Trojans seen as greatest threat to online banking security

Cyberattackers empty business accounts in minutes 

IronKey rolls out secure online banking USB drive 

Healthcare organizations find security, privacy cures 

The HITECH Act: What you need to know about the new data-breach guidelines

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