When Data Is Currency, Who’s Responsible for Its Security?

In a year that was all about data and privacy, it seems only fitting that we closed out 2019 in the shadow of a jumbo data leak where more than a billion records were found exposed on a single server.

Despite this being one of the largest data exposures from a single source in history, it didn’t cause nearly the public uproar that one might expect from a leak involving personal information such as names, email addresses, phone numbers, LinkedIn and Facebook profiles. Instead, this quickly became yet another case of consumer information being mishandled, impacting many of the same consumers that have been burned several times already by companies they trusted.

What’s different about this leak – and what should have given consumers and businesses alike pause – is the way in which this case highlights a more complex problem with data that exists today.

There’s no question that data is a very valuable asset. Organizations have done a great job figuring out how to capture consumer data over the last decade and are now beginning to use and monetize it. The problem is, that data can also be used in many different ways to inflict serious pain on victims in their personal and business lives. So, when that data goes through someone’s hands (business or individual), how much responsibility do they – and those up the lifecycle chain – have for where it ends up?

Beginning at the consumer level, users can opt out of sharing data and should do so at any chance they get if they are concerned about having their information exposed. The good news is that new regulations like the GDPR and CCPA are making this easier to do retroactively than ever before. The challenge is that the system isn’t perfect. Aliases and other databases can still be difficult to opt out of because although they may have information captured, errors like misspellings can prevent consumers from getting to their own data.

With this particular incident, we also caught a glimpse of the role that data enrichment, aggregators and brokers play in security. Although it didn’t come directly from their own servers, the exposed data was likely tied to enrichment firms People Data Labs (PDL) and OxyData. While several data brokers today are taking more responsibility and offering security and privacy education to their customers, it was alarming to see that neither data broker in this case could rule out the possibility that their data was mishandled by a customer. In fact, rather than pushing for a solution, Oxydata seemed to shirk responsibility entirely when speaking with WIRED.

Data brokers need to own up to this challenge and look at better screening of their customers to ensure their use of data has valid purposes. A case study by James Pavur, DPhil student at Oxford University, underscored these failings in the system when he used GDPR Subject Access Requests to obtain his data from about 20 companies, many of which didn't ask for sufficient ID before sharing the information. He went on to try and get as much data as possible about his fiancée, finding he could access a range of sensitive data, including everything from addresses and credit card numbers to travel itineraries. None of this should be possible with proper scredaening in place.

Ultimately, whoever owns the server where the leak originated is the one that will be held legally and fiscally responsible. But should data brokers be emulating the shared responsibility model in use by cloud services like AWS? Either way, by understanding the lifecycle of data and taking additional responsibility upstream, we can begin to cut down on the negative impact when exposures like this inevitably occur.

About the author: Jason Bevis is the vice president of Awake Security Labs at Awake Security. He has extensive experience in professional services, cybersecurity MDR solutions, incident response, risk management and automation products.

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