Defending The Digital Workplace

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Information Security — Where is the App for That? And Why Business Organizations Should Care

Smart phones such as the iPhone, BlackBerry, and other devices are as standard in today’s business organizations as business cards. But this standard creates an increasingly problematic security threat for business organizations.

This point was highlighted this past October with the release of a mobile-phone software that allows someone to eavesdrop on the user’s conversations. This program, called PhoneSnoop, can be secretly downloaded to a BlackBerry (company issued or otherwise) and the microphone can be remotely activated allowing one to listen to conversations held in proximity to the device.

In another example, a computer game developer (Storm8) was sued for violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by allegedly collecting personal data through an iPhone app. The class action litigation alleges that Storm8’s app stole user’s phone numbers. It is reported (click here) that Storm8 admits to collecting the numbers, but the collection was inadvertent due to a glitch in the source code.

For more information on the security threats posed by smart phones, click here for a BusinessWeek article by Olga Kharif, “Smartphones: A Bigger Target for Security Threats.” Also, a “must read” for any business professional using the iPhone is an excellent post “iPhone Secuirty? A Complete Misnomer,” which may be found here. This posts highlights significant iPhone vulnerabilities that can result in major harm to the business organization.

Why Care About Information Security?

So why should business organizations care about the quality of their information security practices? Setting aside bad publicity and loss of customer goodwill, there are a number of legal reasons to care about such practices.

First, for organizations in certain business sectors the short answer is because you are required to care. Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLB) was enacted in 1999 to reform the banking industry and has various provisions concerning information protection. Similarly, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) governs the protection of medical information. Sarbanes-Oxley Act applies to publicly traded companies and may require effective security controls to be implemented. Also, the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA), which amended the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), requires “any person that maintains or otherwise possesses consumer information, or any compilation of consumer information, derived from consumer reports for a business purpose” to “properly dispose of such information or compilation.”

Second, there are also at least 45 reasons why business organizations not subject to the preceding federal statutes must be concerned about information security. This is the number of states with breach notification laws on the books that impose (potentially costly) notice requirements on companies that experience security breaches, together with additional potential liabilities for non-compliance.

Third, even if your business is not subject to the preceding state and federal regulations, chances are it is subject to the Federal Trade Commission oversight. Specifically, the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC), 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(1) states that “Unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce, are hereby declared unlawful.” Under the provisions of the FTC Act, the FTC can take action against businesses that either: (a) publicly promise to keep sensitive personal information secure and confidential and then suffer a security breach; or (b) fail to implement reasonable and appropriate controls to secure sensitive personal information. Further, the FTC has promulgated its “Red Flags” rule, which address identity theft under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003. These rules, which were to originally take effect May 1, 2009, have been delayed (several times now) and are scheduled to go into effect June 1, 2010 … seriously … just trust the government … this time they will go into effect.

Fourth, in addition to statutory and regulatory sources of liability for mismanagement of information security, liability may be based on a breach of contract theory (make sure you know what you’re signing and what you are agreeing to).

Fifth, liability may also arise under a theory that the business organization was negligent in failing to secure sensitive information or information systems. See for example, a 2005 Michigan Court of Appeals case, Bell v. Mich. Council, that held a union had a special relationship with its members giving rise to a duty to safeguard personal data that the members entrusted to the union. Among the distinguishing facts cited by the court in finding a duty-imposing relationship were the union’s obligation to act in the best interests of its members, the foreseeability (under the circumstances) of theft and misuse of the data, and the union’s lack of safeguards to prevent unauthorized access to members’ personal data.

Steps towards Protecting Information

Information security is rapidly emerging as a “mission critical” component for business organizations. This is because virtually all of a company’s daily transactions and all of its key records are created, used, communicated, and stored in electronic form using networked computer technology. In other words, business organizations are, quite literally, completely dependent upon information technology and an interconnected information infrastructure. While this has provided organizations with tremendous economic benefits, e.g., reduced costs and increased productivity, it also creates a legal and public relations time-bomb for organizations that ignore information security.

Unfortunately, there is not a “silver bullet” app for responding to these challenges. But based on experience in working with business professionals, there are steps that should be considered. While far from the “Gospel,” the following measures should be evaluated because they concern the two biggest sources of security risks that I address on a regular basis:

  1. Laptops and portable storage devices routinely create information security risks for organizations. Accordingly, in addition to passwords (which may be – at best – a speed bump for cyber thieves) consider encryption software. A great open-source (and free) application is Truecrypt, which creates a virtual encrypted disk within a file and mounts it as a real disk and can encrypt an entire partition or storage device such as USB flash drive or hard drive; and
  2. Home computers used to access work may not have the appropriate protections, e.g., firewall or virus protection necessary to safeguard information. Additionally, information may be accessible by spouses and children (and if teenagers, their friends). Accordingly, it is critical for employees with home access to work information appreciate the risks and expectations for protecting company/consumer information. Also, it is important for employers to be prepared to step in if such information may be compromised or otherwise exposed due to litigation involving the employee. For example, it is a common scenario for an employee to be involved in a divorce or some other litigation. In such circumstances, the other side will commonly request access to a company provided laptop, Black Berry or related devices. Thus, it is a good practice to require employees to immediately notify their employers of any incident that may compromise the business organization’s information.

For additional information security resources, click here (FTC Resources) or feel free to contact me discuss what steps can be taken to decrease the risks and liabilities your business organization faces.

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