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Social Media Brings New Challenges to Government Security Administrators

The use of social networking sites and BYOD mobile devices at work brings new threats of data leaks to government agencies

Government agencies in the United States and around the world are increasing their use of social media to enhance the quality of government services and to encourage more citizen engagement and dialog. When used properly, social media can build trust and develop more efficient communications between government agencies and those looking for information. But, as beneficial as this approach is becoming for government and citizens alike, agencies must also be aware of the multitude of security problems that can be introduced when social media tools are used by government staff.

Personal use of social media by government employees while at work can introduce lost productivity, misuse of network bandwidth, exposure to unmanaged/inappropriate content, malware threats from clicking links and downloading infected content, and most important, the danger of confidential data leakage.

In addition to the many threats to government networks just mentioned, including the threat of confidential data leaks when staff members use social media on government computers, advances in personal mobile technology at work such as smartphones, MP3 players, tablets, and laptops demonstrate an even bigger more fundamental problem: the consumerization of government IT computing.

Use of mainstream public-cloud applications and personal mobile technologies from inside network security perimeters of our government networks represents a brave new world of risks for security administrators. Personal wireless devices are by-definition completely outside the control of IT security professionals, yet in many cases they are becoming approved for business use anyway due to IT budget cuts and social pressures. The fundamental fuel for this "bring your own device" (BYOD) phenomenon is the a growing percentage of employees want to remain active in social media during the work hours, monitor their personal email, and use their own "latest-greatest" personal devices rather than whatever may have been issued or approved by their government employer.

Combined, the use of social media and mobile devices increases the threat level to any government agency's network exponentially. We are seeing hackers writing code directly to attack mobile devices that can easily infiltrate the agency's networks once downloaded. Keyloggers, Trojans and other forms of malware released onto the network can be used to disrupt network operations and steal confidential government data. When logged into social media sites, government employees can post or upload (either accidently or intentionally) confidential information, and once released it can quickly spread or be passed down the line secretly to the wrong eyes.

The arsenal of Firewalls, AV, NAC, IDS, IPS, and other security tools can help mitigate the threat of malware and hacker threats on the network. Unfortunately, as the social media and BYOD culture grows, the new risk of "data leakage" must be addressed with new tools and approaches.

How can government agencies address these new threats?

Best Practice - Acceptable Use Policies
Government agencies should initially establish a thorough acceptable use policy for social media and BYOD for their employees. Depending on positions and responsibilities, employees may obtain different permissions. A well-thought-out use policy will help the agency enforce and secure social media and BYOD use, which also helps protect the agency from legal liability and compliance violations.

Best Practice - Technology and Security Solutions

In addition to policy development, technology solutions must also be deployed to ensure a successful and legally defendable policy. Complimentary technology should be flexible and allow the agency to automate the policy's enforcement. Even if an employee may not be aware of the policies, the software provides an added level of protection. For example, some security software can be used to block access to social media services and mitigate downloads from endpoint devices.

Unfortunately, we live in a time where there is no security silver bullet. But technologies that simultaneously help secure data leaks while also informing the employees in real time that their actions have been blocked because they violate use policies go a long way to create a culture of policy awareness and obedience. These "block and inform" technologies can be powerful tools because they educate staff in the exact moment of policy violation and put them on notice. For employees looking to use their own devices, written policies can limit their use or they can be required to allow security software to be installed by the IT staff.

Social media challenges arise with how to secure certain channels without blocking social media websites and services entirely. The solution requires the ability to differentiate between personal, corporate, public and confidential information in social media exchanges, so it must be data-centric and content-aware. In addition, for employees who are in positions that have legitimate reasons for social communications, this activity, in accordance with the acceptable use policy must not be affected.

Best Practice - Data Leak Prevention
Among the myriad of IT security technologies that are available, one that satisfies this set of requirements is Data Leak Prevention (DLP). A DLP solution used in conjunction with security and risk-management technologies already in place provides a critical layer of complementary protection.

With any technology, requirements for a DLP solution can be different for every agency/office and should be based on the needs, size of deployment, and associated risks. It is well documented that most data leaks originate from the inside or on a government owned machine that has been removed from the network. The added pressure of unmanaged BYOD only multiplies the threat. DLP solutions are able to stop the problem of data loss right at the source - at the workstation and mobile device. This "stop data leaks at the source" strategy offers the broadest DLP coverage precisely because it follows mobile endpoints like employee laptops outside of the network where traditional security solutions such as firewalls and content security gateways typically do not reach.

Conclusion
Government agencies should consider applying DLP technology on laptops and other endpoint devices to help eliminate the threat of data loss while addressing compliance regulations. The combination of a written, well-communicated acceptable use policy for social media and BYOD, coupled with DLP technology that includes pop-up educational warnings when a policy is being violated can reliably prevent data leaks while helping maintain compliance.

More Stories By Vincent M. Schiavo

Vincent M. Schiavo joined DeviceLock as Chief Executive Officer in September 2011. A veteran of the computer industry for more than 30 years, most recently Mr. Schiavo served as the Executive Vice President of Worldwide Sales for LogLogic, a San Jose based security information and event management provider. Prior to LogLogic, he was the Senior Vice President of Worldwide Sales and Marketing for Secure Computing, a San Jose based web information security company which was acquired by McAfee in 2008.

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