I had a great time this week recording the first episode of a new series with my co-worker Rich Stroffolino. The Gestalt IT Rundown is hopefully the start of some fun news stories with a hint of snark and humor thrown in.
One of the things I discussed in this episode was my belief that no data is truly secure any more. Thanks to recent attacks like WannaCry and Bad Rabbit and the rise of other state-sponsored hacking and malware attacks, I’m totally behind the idea that soon everyone will know everything about me and there’s nothing that anyone can do about it.
Just Pick Up The Phone
Personal data is important. Some pieces of personal data are sacrificed for the greater good. Anyone who is in IT or works in an area where they deal with spam emails and robocalls has probably paused for a moment before putting contact information down on a form. I have an old Hotmail address I use to catch spam if I’m relative certain that something looks shady. I give out my home phone number freely because I never answer it. These pieces of personal data have been sacrificed in order to provide me a modicum of privacy.
But what about other things that we guard jealously? How about our mobile phone number. When I worked for a VAR that was the single most secretive piece of information I owned. No one, aside from my coworkers, had my mobile number. In part, it’s because I wanted to make sure that it got used properly. But also because I knew that as soon as one person at the customer site had it, soon everyone would. I would be spending my time answering phone calls instead of working on tickets.
That’s the world we live in today. So many pieces of information about us are being stored. Our Social Security Number, which has truthfully been misappropriated as an identification number. US Driver’s Licenses, which are also used as identification. Passport numbers, credit ratings, mother’s maiden name (which is very handy for opening accounts in your name). The list could be a blog post in and of itself. But why is all of this data being stored?
Data Is The New Oil
The first time I heard someone in a keynote use the phrase “big data is the new oil”, I almost puked. Not because it’s a platitude the underscores the value of data. I lost it because I know what people do with vital resources like oil, gold, and diamonds. They horde them. Stockpiling the resources until they can be refined. Until every ounce of value can be extracted. Then the shell is discarded until it becomes a hazard.
Don’t believe me? I live in a state that is legally required to run radio and television advertisements telling children not to play around old oilfield equipment that hasn’t been operational in decades. It’s cheaper for them to buy commercials than it is to clean up their mess. And that precious resource? It’s old news. Companies that extract resources just move on to the next easy source instead of cleaning up their leftovers.
Why does that matter to you? Think about all the pieces of data that are stored somewhere that could possibly leak out about you. Phone numbers, date of birth, names of children or spouses. And those are the easy ones. Imagine how many places your SSN is currently stored. Now, imagine half of those companies go out of business in the next three years. What happens to your data then? You can better believe that it’s not going to get destroyed or encrypted in such a way as to prevent exposure. It’s going to lie fallow on some forgotten server until someone finds it and plunders it. Your only real hope is that it was being stored on a cloud provider that destroys the storage buckets after the bill isn’t paid for six months.
How do we fix all this? Can this be fixed? Well, it might be able to be done, but it’s not going to be fun, cheap, or easy. It all starts by making discrete data less valuable. An SSN is worthless without a name attached to it, for instance. If all I have are 9 random numbers with no context I can’t tell what they’re supposed to be. The value only comes when those 9 numbers can be matched to a name.
We’ve got to stop using SSN as a unique identifier for a person. It was never designed for that purpose. In fact, storing SSN as all is a really bad idea. Users should be assigned a new, random ID number when creating an account or filling out a form. SSN shouldn’t be stored unless absolutely necessary. And when it is, it should be treated like a nuclear launch code. It should take special authority to query it, and the database that queries it should be directly attached to anything else.
Critical data should be stored in a vault that can only be accessed in certain ways and never exposed. A prime example is the trusted enclave in an iPhone. This enclave, when used for TouchID or FaceID, stores your fingerprints and your face map. Pretty important stuff, yes? However, even with biometric ID systems become more prevalent there isn’t any way to extract that data from the enclave. It’s stored in such a way that it can only be queried in a specific manner and a result of yes/no returned from the query. If you stole my iPhone tomorrow, there’s no way for you to reconstruct my fingerprints from it. That’s the template we need to use going forward to protect our data.
I’m getting tired of being told that my data is being spread to the four winds thanks to it lying around waiting to be used for both legitimate and nefarious purposes. We can’t build fences high enough around critical data to keep it from being broken into. We can’t keep people out, so we need to start making the data less valuable. Instead of keeping it all together where it can be reconstructed into something of immense value, we need to make it hard to get all the pieces together at any one time. That means it’s going to be tough for us to build systems that put it all together too. But wouldn’t you rather spend your time solving a fun problem like that rather than making phone calls telling people your SSN got exposed on the open market?