Blown To Bits

Data Protection or Wiretaps?

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008 by Ken Ledeen

Vontu, Tablus, Code Green, PacketSure, — these are all players in the world of “data security,” of making sure that valuable, confidential, protected, secure data doesn’t leak out. It’s a noble calling. After all, we don’t want our private information leaking everywhere, and corporations, for sure, don’t want theirs sneaking out the back door either.

Here’s what they do. They listen to everything passing through the company network. Often, they sit in a place on the network where information heads out the digital door to the Internet. They are “configurable.” That means that, like much of the software we use, the administrator can set up rules. “If Susan Black sends an email that includes the word ‘Prada’ or ‘Tiffany’ then …” Oh wait, that isn’t exactly the kind of rule you would expect for data security. My point exactly.

The tools that guard against data leaks are nothing more or less than digital wiretaps. The marketing term is “content inspection agents.” I love marketing-speak. The folks in marketing could have just named them “eavesdroppers.” Unlike the wiretaps of old, they don’t require a human listener. They have digital listeners; software that can be configured to detect whatever the administrator might think is suspicious, and then take appropriate action. That action might be as severe as blocking the transmission, or as aparently benign as keeping a copy for administrative review. The tools can look at every form of network traffic, because they operate at the deepest level, inspecting all the bits as they pass by.

Like so many innovations in our digital world, things developed for one purpose can be directed, or mis-directed to another. So it is with these tools. Guarding against data leaks is like protecting the homeland from terrorists. No one would ever argue against it. The question is, which of our assumptions about personal privacy are being sacrificed along the way. Our observation is that, for the most part, we don’t care. The more we know about the world of bits, the more we will come to accept that Big Brother is watching and listening, and we will just have to accept that new reality.

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