1.1 Billion Reasons Companies Should Encrypt Our Data

As the media pick through the details of the latest large, embarrassing and costly data theft, the current victim, TalkTalk, a UK public telecommunications company, are set for a difficult few months. With revenue of almost £1.8 billion, the company have had an as yet unknown number of their 4 million UK customer details stolen by a perpetrator that ranges anywhere from a 15 year old boy to Islamist militants, if recent reports are to be believed.   

While the post mortem that follows will likely establish the details, the company has already admitted that some of the stolen information was not encrypted. While this was clearly lax for a company that that has been targeted by hackers 3 times in the last year, it seems that under the UK’s Data Protection Act theyare not legally required to encrypt data. The specific wording of the act suggests that firms need only take ‘…appropriate technical and organisational measures…’.

Senior director of security at Echoworx Greg Aligiannis advised “The most concerning revelation from today’s news is the blasé approach to encrypting customer data. Security of sensitive information must be considered a priority by everyone, especially when the life histories of potentially millions of customers are at risk.”

ID-100304695TalkTalk are not alone, research by security specialists Kaspersky Labs suggest that 35% of companies worldwide don’t use encryption to protect data. Surprising given the harsh penalties for breaches. IBM estimates that the average data breach costs $3.8 million, with an average cost of between $145 and $154 per record, not to mention the untold damage to the reputation of the companies affected. When we consider that there were an estimated 1.1 billion records exposed during 2014, we can start to realise the extent of the problem.

With such significant repercussions for being hacked, one must question why encryption technology is not used more widely.

In almost all cases cost will be a factor. Encryption is not cheap. Procedures need to be implemented and maintained by specialist skilled staff and then rolled out through often very large organisations. Asset management, access controls, security incident management, compliance…etc…will all drive the cost, as will new hardware, such as encryption servers. Complexity is another issue that raises many questions: how will the encryption keys be managed? do we let our employees bring and use their own devices into the work place? is the chosen encryption solution compatible with other systems? and what about mobile device management? 

With the number of breaches rising every year and no legal obligation for companies to encrypt our data it would seem that we as individuals need better solutions. For storing data on cloud providers, for example, client-side encryption has existed for sometime that enables users to encrypt their data before it leaves their computer, meaning that companies like Dropbox or Google can’t read your data, although they can delete it. Similarly, the self-encryption component within the SAFE Network also encrypts all network data prior to it leaving the users machine and does so automatically as they upload a file.  Providing encryption that is easy to use and user friendly is surely the key to its wider use. 

However, as good as tools like this are for the storage of our files, we are unfortunately still reliant on companies to look after our personal information and bank account details as things stand. Legislation needs to be tightened up that pushes companies to be much more accountable and responsible with our data. It should demand that not only is our data encrypted, that sufficient policies and procedures are put in place to maximise its effectiveness, as without these, even the strongest encryption can be rendered useless. Providing a high level of data security is simply the cost of doing business, not a nice to have feature.

Events like the TalkTalk hack should also remind us how nonsensical recent Government suggestions that we should ban or attempt to weaken encryption are. It is one of the best lines of defence against adversaries and with its use in all types of commerce, underpins the global economy. 

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net