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Pragmatic Data Security: Groundwork

By Rich

Back in Part 1 of our series on Pragmatic Data Security, we covered some guiding concepts. Before we actually dig in, there’s some more groundwork we need to cover. There are two important fundamentals that provide context for the rest of the process.

The Data Breach Triangle

In May of 2009 I published a piece on the Data Breach Triangle, which is based on the fire triangle every Boy Scout and firefighter is intimately familiar with. For a fire to burn you need fuel, oxygen, and heat – take any single element away and there’s no combustion. Extending that idea: to experience a data breach you need an exploit, data, and an egress route. If you block the attacker from getting in, don’t leave them data to steal, or block the stolen data’s outbound path, you can’t have a successful breach.

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To date, the vast majority of information security spending is directed purely at preventing exploits – including everything from vulnerability management, to firewalls, to antivirus. But when it comes to data security, in many cases it’s far cheaper and easier to block the outbound path, or make the data harder to access in the first place. That’s why, as we detail the process, you’ll notice we spend a lot of time finding and removing data from where it shouldn’t be, and locking down outbound egress channels.

The Two Domains of Data Security

We’re going to be talking about a lot of technologies through this series. Data security is a pretty big area, and takes the right collection of tools to accomplish. Think about network security – we use everything from firewalls, to IDS/IPS, to vulnerability assessment and monitoring tools. Data security is no different, but I like to divide both the technologies and the processes into two major buckets, based on how we access and use the information:

  1. The Data Center and Enterprise Applications – When a user access content through an enterprise application (client/server or web), often backed by a database.
  2. Productivity Tools – When a user works with information with their desktop tools, as opposed to connecting to something in the data center. This bucket also includes our communications applications. If you are creating or accessing the content in Microsoft Office, or exchanging it over email/IM, it’s in this category.

To provide a little more context, our web application and database security tools fall into the first domain, while DLP and rights management generally fall into the second.

Now I bet some of you thought I was going to talk about structured and unstructured data, but I think that distinction isn’t nearly as applicable as the data center vs. productivity applications. Not all structured data is in a database, and not all unstructured data is on a workstation or file server. Practically speaking, we need to focus on the business workflow of how users work with data, not where the data might have come from. You can have structured data in anything from a database to a spreadsheet or a PDF file, or unstructured data stored in a database, so that’s no longer an effective division when it comes to the design and implementation of appropriate security controls.

The distinction is important since we need to take slightly different approaches based on how a user works with the information, taking into account its transitions between the two domains. We have a different set of potential controls when a user comes through a controlled application, vs. when a user is creating or manipulating content on their desktop and exchanging it through email.

As we introduce and explore the Pragmatic Data Security process, you’ll see that we rely heavily on the concepts of the Data Breach Triangle and these two domains of data security to focus our efforts and design the right business processes and control schemes without introducing unneeded complexity.

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