Rethinking Cyber-Security: A New Paradigm for Democratizing Data Exchange

posted by David W. Johnson on May 19, 2016 - 9:41am

Liberated data connects people, informs decision-making, stimulates innovation, streamlines production, creates wealth and advances humanity.  The upward trajectory of human accomplishment arises from ever-more sophisticated data exchange supporting ever-more complex win-win partnerships. 

With the inevitability of water flowing downhill, data yearns to be free and available. Protecting data without stifling its productive potential has been a universal challenge throughout history. Societies that protect and liberate data prosper. Societies that protect and restrict data falter.

Perimeter-based network systems have proven inadequate. They’re cumbersome and vulnerable to attack. The list of hacked healthcare companies reads like a “who’s who” of payors and providers. 

Healthcare cyber-security systems constrain-information sharing and don’t deliver the protection and privacy demanded by patients and regulators. This represents a failure of imagination. 

Health companies seek to secure information by locking it up when liberating data is essential to advancing medical care. The key is to “think different” and employ strategies that both protect and democratize data exchange.

Making Copies: What Data Is and Does

Software creates and manages digital information. Data geeks use the term digital objects to describe bundles of zeroes and ones that comprise digital information. 

Digital objects are as real as letters on paper; however, they are microscopic and move at the speed of light.  Like printed letters, digital objects carry data that conveys meaning (information) and/or instructions (software).  

Printed words and streams of zeroes are different ways of encoding information. 

Digital objects distribute and multiply through virtual copying. When people send e-mails, for example, recipients receive identical copies of those e-mails. Copies proliferate as e-mails distribute through cyber-space and "live" simultaneously on multiple computers

Paraphrasing Rob Schneider’s “Making Copies” skit on Saturday Night Live, the increasing ease and speed of “making (and moving) copies” of digital information is the essence of the current information revolution. These copies flow to billions of inter-connected computers, mobile devices and cell phones. 

Digital connectivity enhances productivity, but also makes data vulnerable to widespread cyber-attacks that compromise data control. The speed, density and ubiquity of digitized copies moving through cyberspace gives cyber-criminals access to sensitive data in multiple locations.

Here’s a thought-provoking question: how many computers have copies of any given individual’s emails and shared files? The answer, of course, is far more than any of us could imagine.

Protecting a Leaky Perimeter: Inspectors; Firewalls; Pipes and Safes

Most cyber-security technologies have the look and feel of medieval castles where defenders employed high walls, moats, flame-throwers and boiling oil to ward off attackers. For the last twenty years, cyber-security has employed similar types of perimeter defenses to protect data. Here’s what they are:

Inspectors: search digital objects for malicious instructions that copy and move data surreptitiously or deny owner access to data. They also inspect outbound data to prevent hackers from sending information they shouldn’t. 
Firewalls: create a perimeter around a universe of digital objects. Unfortunately, firewalls contain thousands of potentially-vulnerable openings (ports) to transmit and receive data.
Pipes: are encrypted barriers that surround moving digital objects, but only when they are moving. The vast majority of your digital objects are not on the move at any point in time.
Safes: use cryptographic containers to store data. Whole disk encryption and encrypted folders protect some digital objects when the computer is off, or the folder is closed. Like physical safes, they only protect things you are not using. 

Unfortunately, inspectors, firewalls, pipes, and safes are “leaky.” They don’t control all data-copying. These traditional cyber-defenses do not deal effectively with malicious “insiders” and, more importantly, do not prevent copies flowing to non-controlled computers. 

Resilient Cyber-Defenses: Absorbing Attacks Without Compromising Data Integrity

Healthcare has lagged the financial and insurance industries in building secure cyber-defenses. The cost to protect sensitive data is astronomical and the performance of traditional approaches has been inconsistent. 

In the same way that developing countries are applying cellular technology to avoid investment in land-based telecommunications infrastructure, health systems can by-pass expensive and inconsistent perimeter cyber-defenses by encrypting individual data objects. This new approach is simple, elegant and effective.

Even more important than securing data, confident healthcare providers will share information without fear to advance medical diagnostics, treatment and research. The “friction” associated with lumpy perimeter defenses will evaporate. Liberated data will flow to its highest and best uses. Enlightened health companies will lead the way.