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Inside a data leak audit

Pharma firm shocked by findings

By , Network World
May 11, 2009 12:01 AM ET

Network World - Editor's note: Security consultancy Networks Unlimited allowed freelance reporter Sandra Gittlen to tag along as it conducted a data leak audit at a Boston pharmaceutical firm, then presented its findings to company execs. In exchange for this type of access, we agreed not to identify the pharma firm.

When the director of IT at a Boston-based, midsize pharmaceutical firm was first approached to participate in a data leakage audit, he was thrilled. He figured the audit would uncover a few weak spots in the company's data leak defenses and he would then be able to leverage the audit results into funding for additional security resources.

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"Data leakage is an area that doesn't get a lot of focus until something bad happens. Your biggest hope is that when you raise concerns about data vulnerability, someone will see the value in allowing you to move forward to protect it," the IT director says.

But he got way more than he bargained for. The 15-day audit identified 11,000 potential leaks, and revealed gaping holes in the IT team's security practices. (Read a related story on the most common violations encountered.)

The audit, conducted by Networks Unlimited in Hudson, Mass., examined outbound e-mail, FTP and Web communications. The targets were leaks of general financial information, corporate plans and strategies, employee and other personal identifiable information, intellectual property and proprietary processes.

Networks Unlimited placed one tap between the corporate LAN and the firewall and a second tap between the external e-mail gateway and the firewall. Networks Unlimited used WebSense software on two servers to monitor unencrypted traffic. Then it analyzed the traffic with respect to company policy. Specifically, Networks Unlimited looked for violations of the pharmaceutical firm's internal confidentiality policy, corporate information security policy, Massachusetts Privacy Laws (which go into effect in 2010), Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and Security and Exchange Commission and Sarbanes-Oxley regulations.

Auditor Jason Spinosa, senior engineer at Networks Unlimited, says that while he selected the criteria for this audit, he usually recommends that companies take time to determine their policy settings based on their risk profile.

That said, Spinosa was shocked at what he found -- more than 700 leaks of critical information, such as Social Security numbers, pricing, financial information and other sensitive data in violation of the Payment Card Industry's standards. He also found serious lapses – more than 4,000 – that ran counter to HIPAA and Defense Department Information Assurance Certification rules.

And although the firm technically does not fall under HIPAA because a third party handles all patient information, the IT director says they hope to eventually bring some of that functionality in-house and should be prepared. In addition, Spinosa says companies that don't fall under HIPAA should audit based on HIPAA guidelines because of the potential leakage of sensitive employee data.

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