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Nov 27 2008   2:40AM GMT

Where The Thieves Are

Arian Eigen Heald Arian Eigen Heald Profile: Arian Eigen Heald

The core requirements for committing the kind of data theft that leads to identity theft are ability, motivation and opportunity.

Ability means having the skills to do the actions required. Start-up costs for data theft are low, with information readily available, computer equipment purchased, leased or rented and high profit potential. Stealing someone’s mail is free.

Thieves can spend many years honing their skills in order to capture large aggregate data for bigger money. By breaking into servers accessible from the Internet that are not configured correctly and monitored daily, thieves create a springboard for attacks into the heart of the corporate network. Further, it is not the cracker who defaces your website and announces it to his IRQ peers that you have to worry about, it’s the cracker who doesn’t want to be seen. The thief wants to be in and out of the corporate databases with the information he/she needs quickly and quietly.

Any kind of personally identifiable information or proprietary institutional information being stolen leaves a business vulnerable to legal, operational, financial and compliance risks. And if the institution’s IT systems and administrative controls are not secure, there are grounds for a successful legal case.

Motivation. Any of a number of events can provide a “reason” to steal information and sell it: a disgruntled, overworked employee seizes on information as a way to receive compensation he feels entitled to; another employee becomes desperate when medical bills overtake her. The common denominator here is that the ability to acquire money pairs itself with a reason, no matter how badly manufactured in the mind of its creator. The reason becomes compelling when there is no oversight.

If the employer does not have controls in place to monitor access to the databases of personally identifiable information, it becomes impossible to prove who did access the information, except in an indirect fashion, such as a process of elimination or admittance of guilt. What does it say about the employer to the victim if such safeguards were not in place? Lawyers point to such lack of safeguards as negligence. Just ask Countrywide how much the illegal access to their customer databases is costing them.

Respondeat superior is the legal doctrine making an employer or principal liable for the wrong of an employee or agent if the wrong was committed within the scope of the employment or agency. This doctrine has been applied to a wide variety of computer crimes, and is likely to be used in a class action suit.

Just as the negligence doctrine could be used to impose liability for inadvertently spreading a virus, an organization may be held liable under the respondeat superior doctrine for an employee’s act of stealing and selling confidential customer information if: (1) the act occurred within the employee’s scope of employment, such as providing access to customer information to its employees; and (2) the employer knew or should have known that the employee was creating copies of confidential data and disseminating the data to inappropriate parties. Did Countrywide know? Nope. The FBI had to tell them.

Some might argue that employers would not know who exactly had stolen the information if it were taken in the course of normal duties, and this is entirely accurate. However, by logging and reporting on who has had access to the information the employer can rule out suspected internal thieves and narrow the focus of investigation. Better yet, the organization will have shown due diligence and sound business practice in addressing the risk of a lack of access controls for confidential data.

Opportunity Having access to information or materiel that can be exchanged for money is the primary goal. Proving due diligence in protecting information from outside crackers and monitoring employee access are important pieces of legal protection for our companies.

Customer service and support after the fact of theft will not let business off the legal “hook” if the institutions themselves have given the thieves unmonitored access to the information. The number of class action suits against organizations that have had data breaches is rising rapidly.

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