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An Information-Centric Approach to Information Security

Data security is a process, not a product

Successful businesses execute simultaneously on three fronts: sustained revenue growth, continuous cost control, and comprehensive risk management. Driven by a significant rise in public awareness of information security breaches, the discipline of risk management is under increased pressure to protect the information assets of the business better. This pressure has resulted in a great deal of confusion about the best course of action, and more than a few ill-considered measures have been put in place. But businesses need not fret. The solution comes in a process they already understand, albeit with an intuitive reorientation of traditional thinking.

Information protection is already a core element of most businesses' risk management strategies. IT departments all over the globe have accumulated expertise and established best practices for protecting their information from disasters such as hurricanes or from operating failures such as those caused by human error. They have also worked to ensure the integrity of their most important data, making sure they can replace damaged or corrupt data with backup copies. But a third dimension to data protection exists that to date has received less attention than availability or integrity: data confidentiality. In the face of increasing threats in this area, confidentiality lapses can't continue. To bring this "third leg" up to par, we need to understand why it hasn't gotten the same level of attention.

The reality is that despite the millions of dollars in corporate investment in IT and information security information simply isn't secure. Two factors explain this state of insecurity. First, security is fundamentally a process problem, not a technology problem. Without a comprehensive, well-designed set of policies and procedures underpinning an organization's information security efforts, even the best technology will fail. Secondly, up until now, securing information has meant securing the infrastructure that surrounds it - networks, servers, applications - anything but the information itself. To be effective, we have to focus on securing the information assets themselves. When we re-orientate our thinking, taking an information-centric approach, the solution becomes familiar and clear: Information security is fundamentally an information management problem, and success hinges on making security an integral element of an organization's existing information management discipline and processes.

In recent years many businesses have gone through a fundamental reassessment of their approach to managing information. With the volume of information growing by 70% annually in large corporations (and faster in small businesses), it no longer makes sense - if it ever did - to manage all information in the same way. It's simply too expensive and too resource-intensive to treat all information equally. The most important information should have the highest levels of service: performance, availability, integrity, and now, confidentiality/security.

Today many organizations pursue an information-centric IT strategy called Information Lifecycle Management (ILM). It helps them manage different information differently, based on the changing value of the information to the business. They classify all their information assets into logical groups, from the lowest to highest requirements for speed of access, availability, retention, and security. ILM lets them not only better match the right type of IT resources to the requirements of the business, but acknowledge the dynamic nature of information, tracking its movement throughout its lifecycle from creation to deletion or archiving. Organizations today manage information selectively and dynamically.

An information-centric approach to information security reorients our thinking about key security questions. Consider, for example, the issue of what is secured. As we've noted, most of the investment in information security has been made in a sea of point-products aimed at securing specific IT resources such as networks, applications, servers, operating systems, and personal devices. But information is dynamic, not static. It moves throughout and between these resources and ultimately outside the scope of the specific product protecting them. A successful information security strategy will recognize the movement implied in the lifecycle of information and protect the information itself, not just the stationary IT resource supporting it.

Another issue in dire need of re-evaluation is where to focus the protection of information. As we've noted, information security isn't a product; it is a process and a system, a comprehensive approach to securing the path of each piece of digital content from the point of creation or entry into the corporation's information flow to deletion or permanent archiving. Most of the investment in information security has been concentrated on the network perimeter. Securing the outer defenses, the thinking went, will protect everything inside the business. Well, that approach didn't save the Trojans, and it's clearly far from sufficient today due to the widespread sharing of information inside and outside of the business. The increase in information-based teamwork and enhanced collaboration with partners and customers helped businesses grow revenues and control costs. But the more businesses share their information, the bigger the challenge is in protecting and securing it. To continue to benefit from investments in information technology, they needn't stop the productive flow of information inside and outside of the business. Only an information-centric approach, not a perimeter-centric view, permits this.

CEOs should mandate a comprehensive overview of the information assets of the corporation then develop and implement an end-to-end information security strategy that will be integrated with how they manage information. This detailed plan of action must encompass all points of access, storage, and movement of information. It must also integrate all the various activities touching in one way or another on securing and protecting information - from encryption, to disaster recovery, to digital rights management, to backup, to compliance. This information-centric approach to information security makes data protection comprehensive, and ensures that emerging business risks are successfully mitigated.

More Stories By Dennis Hoffman

Dennis Hoffman is the Vice President of Information Security at EMC Corporation.

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