Plan Accordingly


Lately, we’ve been reading and hearing about a number of new computer hacking incidents. If you work for the US government, your personal data may have been stolen as part of the massive Office of Personnel Management hack last month. If you’ve enlisted the services of the Ashley Madison website to cheat on your spouse, you may be alarmed to know that your data was also stolen by hackers who are threatening to release this embarrassing information unless the site is shut down. Good luck getting any sleep.

If you own a smartphone running the Android operating system, you woke up recently to news of yet another vulnerability discovered in the operating system that runs 80% of the smartphones out there. And finally, if you own a late-model Jeep sports utility vehicle, you have no doubt heard that hackers can take control of your vehicle while you’re speeding down the highway.

These are just a few of the latest examples—I’ve been following this for years, and it seems to me a constant cycle of hacks, demonstrated vulnerabilities, patches, updates, followed by new hacks. It’s Keystone Cops meets Whac-A-Mole, only it’s not a game and real damage occurs. As more and more sensitive data is placed online and more types of devices are equipped to communicate over networks, the problem will only get worse.

Is there a solution? Information Technology technicians continually strengthen firewalls to protect their local area networks. Others advocate for stronger data encryption, even though governments and law enforcement warn that this could provide safe cover for terrorists and criminals.

I’ve got a low-tech solution: get as much of your sensitive data offline as  possible and keep it that way.

Sounds paranoid? I suppose it might seem that way to younger people who have grown up in the world of interconnected data. I’m not a programmer, IT specialist or data security expert. I am, however, responsible for the security of over 210 terabytes of data, so I have to err on the safe side.  So my starting position is this: Nothing is unhackable, so plan accordingly.

I can explain this with an analogy. The valuables in your home are likely protected by a door that has some sort of lock. Regarding such locks, my friends and I used to joke that, “it keeps out the honest thieves.” The understanding here is that a really determined thief with the right tools or skills won’t be stopped.

When the maker of a lock, be it for a home, a bicycle or even a huge safe claims that their product can’t be broken into, I just laugh. Such a statement is total hubris—it asserts that there’s nobody out there smarter than the lock’s designer. Inevitably, someone comes around who can pick or crack the lock because, frankly, there’s always someone smarter.

Continuing the analogy, it makes sense to me to assume that if the bad guys can get to the front door and stay there undetected for a long enough period, the lock will be picked or cracked. Not by everybody, but eventually by someone with the right skills. My solution is to not let anyone get to the door in the first place. The lock can’t be breached if nobody can physically get to it.

So how does this relate to the reality of digital security? The “front door” in our analogy is the firewall and other network security applications and settings employed to protect digital assets. The lock-picking thief is the hacker. The way that the thief gets to that door is via the network. Without the network to provide access, it doesn’t matter how skilled the hacker is—they can’t get to the “door” in the first place.

This is the basic concept of “air gapping,” a simple security tactic that involves removing all outside connections from a computer or local area network. This removes the conduit through which the hacker can get to the “door.” With this situation, the hacker has to obtain physical access to the computer to get the goods. In a strange twist to our analogy, the hacker would likely have to learn to pick locks!

At HMML, a complete set of our digital images resides on a huge server system on our local area network. This system isn’t on the internet, but since there are elements of the campus IT infrastructure that are connected to the outside world, this data is theoretically susceptible to outside security risks. Convenience is the trade-off; this set of images is far easier and faster for workers at HMML to access.

We have, however, planned accordingly. Another set of our images at HMML is air-gapped. In our microfilm vault, there are cabinets containing hundreds of external hard disk drives. The drives aren’t connected to anything and are not powered up. An air-gapped hard drive is even more secure than an air-gapped computer; proof-of-concept hacks have been demonstrated on the latter. The vault is behind several layers of digital card access security interspersed with mechanical locks. The whole facility has motion sensor and alarm systems. This set of images would be far more difficult for a hacker to get to. You can read about HMML’s data storage strategies in this issue of Illuminations magazine.

In my own work and personal life, I employ similar methods. Although I take full advantage of cloud services such as Google Apps, DropBox and the like, sensitive information is on external hard drives that are eventually stored in secure off-site locations. It’s very handy to have certain things connected to the world so that folks can collaborate on projects, share necessary resources and so on. But this convenience is always a trade-off with security. My motto has always been: Don’t put anything online or in an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper.

In our modern lives, we strike a balance between security and convenience that fits our comfort level. Having an ATM cash card is a security vulnerability, but it’s also convenient enough for folks to accept the risks. If a person’s credit card gets hacked, the cardholder usually isn’t held responsible for the resulting charges. Therefore, most folks don’t have enough at risk (or perceived risk) to get too excited about the threats that exist.

This will change. More folks are putting their digital assets on cloud service, where they tend to assume that their stuff is safe, even though it may not be. There is the up-and-coming trend of the “internet of things,” where appliances, home control systems, and other sorts of things that used to be standalone, “dumb” appliances will be connected to and remotely controllable via networks. People are going to have to make informed decisions about the level of risk they’re willing to take with so many paths leading to so many “front doors.”

As for myself, the convenience of being able to operate my home thermostat from my smartphone isn’t worth the risk of having the possibility of someone remotely turning the furnace off in the middle of winter. Others would accept that tradeoff—all I can say is, “Plan accordingly.”

And for all the folks who were on the Ashley Madison website who are now waiting for the hammer to fall, you’re on your own.


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