Business Unusual

Any data you are not willing to share is data someone might want to steal

The Panama Papers are the largest unauthorised distribution of data in history. The first thing the journalists who received the data did was to store it somewhere secure to avoid the data being leaked!

Hacks and leaks are not new. The first hack reportedly happened at the beginning of the last century. The shift now is the scale.

In 2010 there was a massive leak of US Intelligence cables that came to be known as Wikileaks Cablegate and consisted of 1.7 gigabytes of data. This leak is 2.6 terabytes - over 1000 times bigger.

It is not easy to imagine how much data that is. Below is an image of Bill Gates showing how much printed documents can be stored on a data CD. You would need to duplicate that pile of paper 1613 times to understand how much information was in the leak.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates sitting on top of the volume of printed data that could be stored on the origianl CD Rom (650 MB). pic credit: Microsoft

A composite of the first image to show the 1613 CDs of data that make up the Panama papers, the largest data leak ever.

Exposing the truth

Sifting through the reported 4.8 million emails, 2.1 million scanned documents, 3 million database entries and other other documents amounting to 11.5 million records is no small task. It is why the the German media company that received the leak contacted the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to co-ordinate the project who in turn made use of an analytics engine called Nuix.

They invited news organisations from 76 countries on six continents at over 100 media organisations to collaborate. The publication on 3 April comes after 12 months of investigations by over 370 journalists with more of the data to be released in May.

Journalists accessing the data have to use two-factor authentication and encrypted chat when discussing their research. Even so, news about the leak and its contents did manage to get mentioned ahead of the official publication date.

News collaborations will allow more news agencies to cover more stories with greater depth for the benefit of all of us.

Two of the African media companies involved are ANCIR and Amabhungane.

Protecting your data

But we should also consider the flip side of the story. Law firm Mossack Fonseca has been at the very least embarrassed by the hack/leak and their clients are understandably angry and may be in danger following the publication of information.

Their reputation and ability to continue with normal business operations will be affected for at least months if not years to come. They maintain that they have done nothing wrong and comply with all laws affecting them. It will be some time to see if that is indeed true.

This leak shared information that goes back 40 years to their establishment and they have said they are reviewing their systems to determine how the data was taken and what they can do to prevent it from happening again. A security expert doing a cursory check found their systems outdated and vulnerable. They are unlikely to be unique in that estimation and no doubt there will be a business boom in business security spending.

While this one leak has significant media interest many hacks and or leaks might be for the benefit of competitors or increasingly a form of digital hijacking that locks your data for which you need to pay a ransom to unlock.

The business lapse in security comes most often from our own attitudes to digital security.

Imagine you had an empty briefcase with a 3-number combination lock on each lock. If the default code was triple zero, you would be unlikely to change it.

If that same briefcase held your life’s savings, you would take more care to not only ensure it is locked but have a combination that is more secure.

Phones and computers are those briefcases filled with information that is either a valuable asset or valuable to you. Yet most of us treat them like the empty briefcase until something goes wrong.

That is compounded in a business environment where staff use weak passwords or openly share them. Businesses that don’t revoke employees access after they leave run the risk of losing information to a rival or having your systems damaged if not destroyed by a disgruntled employee.

There are three options for individuals and business in responding to this. Do nothing; do something poorly or do enough.

Most fall into the second option for both their own data and that of their business.

Doing enough only requires three basic steps.

  • Use unique passwords for each of the services you use (a password manager will make it easy).

  • Don’t click links from emails that prompt you to enter login information. If you must learn what to look out for in the URL.

  • Find a means to backup your data to both a secure physical and secure cloud location.

It will require a little work to learn what is needed, but the effort is nothing compared to the damage for failing to do it.

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