Pratum Blog

Here we go again. Another record setting case involving identity theft. Fox News is reporting that Albert Gonzalez is responsible for the theft of 130 million credit and debit card numbers. Funny thing is…Gonzalez is already due to stand trial later in 2009 AND 2010 for two other data thefts. Maybe you heard about one of them…TJ Maxx?

Obviously details are just emerging but some intel suggests the accused and his co-conspirators were able to breach the systems using SQL injection attacks. If that's the case I think the organizations that fell victim should be held liable for criminal negligence. Here's my argument for why.

SQL injection is the technique hackers use to insert SQL statements, queries and commands into web-based systems in order to view or extract data which normally wouldn't be visible to the end user. This stems from input which is not validated.

When you enter a term into a search field to find products by name for example, the application takes your input and creates a SQL query which it send to the database. In a normal query, your search term is passed to the database as just that, a search term. Malicious users however will put in valid SQL statements into those search boxes that are then passed to the database. It could be a command such as "Send back the table of credit card numbers". The database sees this as a valid command and sends back the full table of credit card numbers. If this input isn't checked by the application, the "search term" will be sent over to the database and it will be processed for what it is. A database execution statement, not a search term.

The sad part is that this type of malicious activity is completely avoidable. There are tools which will check each one of your input variable to ensure they cannot be manipulated in this fashion. Oh…and these tools are automated. Sure they cost money (some of them) but the risk to the confidentiality, integrity and availability of a database system open to public intrusion is just too great to ignore. This is why I say find those responsible and charge them with criminal negligence.

Now…before you go hog wild on me, I know there are some legal issues to work through here. My point is, until the system owners have some real skin in the game this will continue.

So…give me your thoughts on this. Should system owners (business owners) and administrators (IT departments) have some sort of criminal penalty applied when proper risk mitigation techniques are not followed?


Somewhere along the road of technology integration into our daily business process, the role of information owner and data custodian become confused. Data only has value when there is meaning wrapped around it. The combination of data and meaning creates information. A business unit, and therefore business unit leadership, is the rightful owner of almost all, if not all of the information a business generates. The data owner is the person or entity for which the data has value. They are the ones who can open a spreadsheet and make sense of the rows and columns of numerical data. It's informational to them.

In contrast, the data custodian can't make heads or tails of most of the data they are asked to maintain. A spreadsheet of last month's sales numbers isn't any more valuable than next month's customer newsletter. It's just data to them. They are charged with making sure the data is secured and available to the owner when needed.

In many organizations, information owners have abdicated their responsibilities to manage and protect their information investments. They rely on IT to determine backup schedules, off-site rotations, disaster recovery, retention schedules, access controls and other things which impact the confidentiality, integrity and availability (CIA) of their information. In many cases the business unit leadership is markedly absent from any discussions or decision points regarding information CIA. They simply want to pass this on to IT to worry about as a "technical" issue.

By default, most IT organizations accepted this responsibility as they knew at some point data would be compromised and the business unit would look to them to fix it. Unfortunately, instead of pushing the responsibility back to the business unit to get involved in the process, they simply shouldered the burden and did what they thought was best.

If you take in a stray puppy and care for it, you might become attached to that puppy over the years. When the rightful owner comes back to claim it later, there could be some tension in those discussions. The same thing is happing with regards to our business information. IT has been caring for and feeding our data for years while the business units have largely neglected their responsibilities as information owners. IT has been doing the best they could with limited resources and knowledge of the constraints on the information.

Now under the gun due to regulatory environments, data owners are finding themselves on the hook and under scrutiny in regards to information security and privacy. Business unit leadership is suddenly very interested in what's happening with their information. They want to know the who, what, when, where, why and how.

We in IT need to embrace this newfound interest. Don't look at it as challenging your authority over the information. You never had any authority. It was an illusion. Take a deep breath and exhale a sigh of relief. No longer do you have all the responsibility with none of the authority. You can now provide recommendations to the business on appropriate safeguards but ultimately will take direction from them in regards to protecting their data. This is going to feel weird at first. Really weird…almost wrong. But trust me, in the end everyone will be happier and things will run smoothly when information owners and data custodians understand and embrace their roles in collaboration with each other.

To round out my recent postings regarding the impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) on healthcare organizations, I wanted to touch on the enhancements to the enforcement rules. I spoke about the mandatory reporting of a breach in one of earlier posts. Now HHS doesn't need to wait for a complaint or audit to find the breaches. Offending organizations have to tattle on themselves, and then get hit with the penalties. I wish this was how it worked at my house. I've got 4 kids and I'd love to institute mandatory self incrimination. Doubt it will work that well in either scenario, but we can always hope.

Some of the caps on willful negligence have also been raised or removed. This is important as it changes the risk model some organizations have been operating under. Knowing the most a penalty for non-compliance could cost them has allowed organizations to factor this into their risk models. If mitigating the risk is close to or more than the potential penalty, the risk may be deemed acceptable and nothing is done to mitigate it. This is great risk management for the company but bad for the patient. Eliminating a cap for willful negligence should help organizations take a harder look at the true risk they are facing, not just the financial risk.

The final interesting tidbit in the enforcement modifications is the delegation of authority to the state attorneys general. Unless there is a pending federal action, the attorney general of a state now has the authority to seek civil damages for violations of HIPAA. The limitations of these damages are lower than the federal level however there is a much greater chance of a zealous state attorney general taking action against an organization on behalf of the residents of that state than any enforcement action being taken by the federal government.

All in all, I believe these changes help strengthen HIPAA and will force some organizations that have looked for any and all loopholes to reconsider their approach to security and privacy. There is no perfect solution and I'm the last person who wants more federal regulation on any industry. However, I like to see regulations that may actually help us move toward an end state we all agree should be reached rather than one that leaves us scratching our heads from the get go.

P.S. I'm not commenting on the need, usefulness, benefits or detractors of ARRA as a whole. Simply the sections I've mentioned in these posts. Please no flaming rants about the role of the federal government, corporate responsibility or other hot topics of the day. Respectful and intelligent comments both in favor of or in contradiction to my posts will be responded to. All others will be ignored…respectfully.


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