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Cloud Security: Article

Sharing Documents Does Not Require Sharing Risk

We all must learn to share – safely

An isolated business is often one that does not operate for long.  In order to succeed, businesses must collaborate with customers, partners and other parties.  In doing so, organizations share many types of data; we provide specifications and documentation to outsourcers across the world, work together with remote employees or telecommuters, communicate with partners and channels, talk with customers or create shared repositories for mergers and acquisitions. The documents that we share may be quotes, replies to RFPs, competitive analysis, reports or customer presentations. Such exchanges enable us to grow our businesses, but also introduce an element of risk.  Many of these documents may be highly sensitive, and if they fall into the wrong hands, either accidentally or intentionally, they could cause serious damage. Your company probably has some security measures in place, but are they enough?  Do you know how to share safely?

One of the great challenges for businesses has long been learning to share in a manner that protects document integrity.   Since we are allowing additional people access to information, sharing is an inherently hazardous operation.  The risk cannot be eliminated simply by blocking the exchange of information.  That's why firewalls, intrusion prevention or data loss prevention (DLP) systems cannot solve this problem.  We actually want the data to go out, but we need to limit its exposure. This problem cannot be solved by simple password protection approaches, either. This is a common misconception and provides a false sense of security. Documents may be in a password-protected content management system or password-protected document, but since there is nothing to prevent an authorized recipient from sharing this password with a non-authorized party, this approach does not fully address security concerns.  How easy would it be, for example, for an irate employee to download all the company's sensitive documents to his or her laptop and then leave with all of that information?

While many companies have taken note of the flaws in the above solutions, their responses to those flaws have been inadequate.  These weary businesses still rely on old-fashioned protections such as sending photocopy-resistant blue paper via courier.  While this partially solves the security risks posed by sharing, it is an expensive, cumbersome way of dealing with the issue.

Rather than abandoning technology-based document sharing, businesses need to fully consider available solutions and determine which ones provide true protection.  Organizations should examine the critical aspects of the sharing operation and the potential risks they present; the first is protecting documents en route.  How can a business ensure such materials will not be intercepted? The second potential risk is whether the recipient is indeed authorized to receive these documents and that only authorized recipients can view them; sometimes, one may also wish to provide tracking capabilities and verify that the recipient has indeed received and viewed the sent document.  Finally, once the documents reach their rightful recipients, there is the most complex sharing risk: making sure materials are not transferred or leaked to unauthorized parties. This latter problem is difficult to solve, as there are many ways in which such documents can leak out - by printing them, forwarding them onwards or even taking a screenshot.

Before we look at available solutions to this problem, we should first consider some additional requirements. One important requirement is the ease of use and deployment.  A solution that isn't user-friendly may end up underutilized by the organization; clearly, no security benefits will be achieved in such a case. Likewise, if the deployment and maintenance are too time-consuming, the solution may fail.  Finally, one must consider the buy-in of third-party organizations with which a company plans to share documents.  Without a technological solution minding the security of your documents, you cannot guarantee that the recipients are adhering to your policies.

Paths to tighter security
E-mail encryption solutions offer some protection for documents en route and can be used to verify that only the authorized recipient can open them. Sometimes, companies use dedicated secure file transfer applications for mass transfer of data from A to B. While e-mail encryption solves some of the aspects of the problem, some serious drawbacks exist. For one, the e-mail encryption approach requires that both parties install and manage complex applications to perform the encryption and decryption. Moreover, these solutions do not provide a comprehensive solution that secures these documents after they have arrived at their destination.

Enterprise digital rights management (DRM) software is another approach to document security.  DRM can prevent documents from being accessed by unauthorized parties and lets users embed security policies within the documents, carrying with them the attributes of who can view, edit or print. DRM is primarily designed for use inside the corporate network, but it has some serious drawbacks when it comes to the act of sharing externally with partners, customers and others. It requires fairly complex installation and management in order to get started, and this problem is further exacerbated when companies need to share externally, as it requires third parties to have the same software installed on their end, as well. This is often impractical.

Virtual data rooms or collaborative online environments also provide secure environments for sharing and collaboration. The latest products are delivered via software-as-a-service (SaaS), making the adoption extremely easy. However, many of these offerings cannot control documents once they have arrived at their destination. When it comes to sensitive transactions such as mergers and acquisitions, one needs to make sure the documents are accessed only by authorized parties and that these parties, in turn, do not forward or print them without permission. These solutions also raise important concerns regarding methods for revoking access to documents in case a deal falls apart.

DLP systems address a different problem; they block certain documents from going out, but once documents are out, all control is relinquished. These systems, too, are internal to the organization and cannot solve the problem of sharing externally.  DLP may be used in conjunction with other solutions to prevent some documents from leaving the organization altogether or to allow them to go out but force them to go through encryption, DRM or document control.

Finally, SaaS document control and tracking solutions enable users to easily send documents through the system, while both encrypting them in transit and controlling them throughout their lifecycle. With such a solution, a user (or administrator) can define a policy for each document that will restrict the recipient from printing, copying or forwarding the material. If one again considers the example of an employee leaving the company, this security solution makes it easy to revoke all documents residing on that employee's computer.

Sharing is a virtue, as long as you do it securely
In business, sharing securely is not just a virtue, it is vital.  Countless businesses are completing document-dependent business transactions easily and safely because they implemented the right technological solution.

A comprehensive document control solution makes this easy.  For example, organizations frequently provide quotes to customers or responses to RFPs.  They must do so while ensuring no one intercepts messages en route and that materials arrive at their intended destinations. When these businesses send documents through a document control system, they can specify the recipients' permissions and policy (i.e., who they are, document expiration date, who may forward it or print it, etc.) and the documents will never let one lose control. Users know messages have arrived and been viewed and make sure they do not get to anyone other than the original group of people specified. These solutions are also useful for companies that share pricing or competitive information with sales force or channel partners.  In such cases, it is important to revoke access to former employees and channels that are no longer affiliated.

In the most highly sensitive dealings - mergers and acquisitions -- document control solutions enable secure sharing of highly classified information. M&As demand the parties involved send documents securely, keep them protected at all times and prevent any leakage to unauthorized audiences. An audit trail may be important, as well. Finally, in this case it is important to be able to revoke all documents if a deal falls through. Companies involved in such deals must realize that a virtual data room does not fully mitigate the risk of leakage.  In order to ably handle these sensitive matters, organizations need more secure solutions in addition to data rooms.

The bottom line
Sharing is essential in business.  Successful companies are those that find secure methods for controlling shared data, since the price of critical information falling into the wrong hands is too frightening to risk. IT departments have an opportunity to determine the course their companies set for sharing and collaborating internally and externally. When you take on this task, explore all your options and choose the one that not only deploys quickly and easily, but also offers a truly safe method for transferring confidential information.

More Stories By Adi Ruppin

Adi Ruppin is vice president of marketing for Confidela. Confidela’s WatchDox is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution that enables the confidential sharing of important or sensitive documents in an easy and secure way.

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