Some days I feel the suffocating weight of travel more than others. Typically, those days are near the end of a long travel binge; one lasting about 3 months this time.

When I first started traveling I was in my 20’s, effectively single (rotating girlfriends), and relatively unencumbered. At first it was an incredibly exciting adventure, but that quickly wore off as my social ties started to decay (friends call less if you’re never around) and my physical conditioning decayed faster. I dropped from 20 hours or more a week of activity and workouts to nearly 0 when on the road. It killed my progression in martial arts and previously heavy participation in rescues. Not that the travel was all bad; I managed to see the world (and circumnavigate it), hit every continent except Antarctica, and, more importantly, meet my wife. I learned how to hit every tourist spot in a city in about 2 days, pack for a 2-week multi-continental trip using only carry-on, and am completely comfortable being dropped nearly anywhere in the world.

Eventually I hit a balance and for the most part keep my trips down to 1 or 2 a month, which isn’t so destructive as to ruin my body and piss off my family. But despite my best scheduling efforts sometimes things get out of control. That’s why I’m excited to finish off my last trip in the latest binge (Oracle World) for about a month and get caught up with blogging and the business. For those of you earlier in your careers I highly recommend a little travel, but don’t let it take over your life. I’ve been on the run for 8 years now and there is definitely a cost if you don’t keep it under control. As we say in martial arts, there is balance in everything, including balance.

Now on to Oracle World and a little security.

I’m consistently amazed at the scope of Oracle World. I go to a lot of shows at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, from Macworld to RSA, and Oracle World dwarfs them all. For those of you that know the area, they hold sessions in the center and every hotel in walking distance, close of the road between North and South, and effectively take over the entire area. Comparing it to RSA, it’s a strong reminder that we (security) are far from the center of the world. Not that Oracle is the center, but the business applications they, and competitors, produce.

This year I was invited to speak on a panel on data masking/test data generation. As usual, it’s something we’ve talked about before, and it’s clearly a warming topic thanks to PCI and HIPAA. I’ve covered data masking for years, and was even involved in a real project long before joining Gartner, but it’s only VERY recently that interest really seems to be accelerating. You can read this post for my Five Laws of Data Masking.

Two interesting points came out of the panel. The first was the incredible amount of interest people had in public source and healthcare data masking. Rather than just asking us about best practices (the panel was myself, someone from Visa, PWC, and Oracle), the audience seemed more focused on how organizations are protecting their personal financial and healthcare data. Yes, even DNA databases.

The second, and more relevant point, is the problem of inference attacks. Inference attacks are where you use data mining and ancillary sources to compromise your target. For example, if you capture a de-identified healthcare database, you may still be able to reconstruct the record by mining other sources. For example, if you have a database of patient records where patient names and numbers have been scrambled, you might still be able to identify an individual by combining that with scheduling information, doctor lists, zip code, and so on.

Another example was a real situation I was involved with. We needed to work with a company to de-identify a customer database that included deployment characteristics, but not allow inference attacks. The problem wasn’t the bulk of the database, but the outliers, which also happened to be the most interesting cases. If there are a limited number of companies of a certain size deploying a certain technology, competitors might be able to identify the source company by looking at the deals they were involved with, which ones they lost, and who won the deal. Match those characteristics, and they then identify the record and could mine deeper information. Bad guys could do the same thing and perhaps determine deployment specifics that aid an attack.

If logic flaws are the bane of application security design, inference attacks are the bane of data warehousing and masking.