A Former White House CIO Discusses Data Hygiene and Cybersecurity Strategies

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Consumers in the digital marketplace rarely think twice about allowing companies access to their personal information, and the companies that are amassing this data are enjoying the unprecedented business opportunities that such access entails. This exchange of information does, however, come with substantial liability risks; that information can easily fall into the wrong hands. This feature of the e-commerce landscape is causing both consumers and companies to ask: Is privacy dead in the Information Age? To explore this question, NACD Directorship Editor in Chief Judy Warner sat down with former White House Chief Information Officer and founder of consulting company Fortalice Theresa Payton during a Monday evening session at the 2015 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit.

Theresa Payton at 2015 Global Board Leaders' Summit

In short, privacy isn’t dead, but our concept of privacy is undergoing a transformation. Payton said that as business leaders and consumers, we need to have serious conversations about what the new—and correct—lines of privacy are. “We own some responsibilities as business leaders and government officials,” she said. “Data is hackable and breaches are inevitable. Don’t aid and abet hackers.”

It turns out that companies are inadvertently aiding and abetting hackers. First, some organizations fall victim to their own, outdated view of building cyber defenses: Set up as big a firewall as you can around the company’s data assets; install anti-malware and antivirus software—done. This is a losing defensive strategy; it fails to take into account the mechanics of how and why these major breaches continue to happen.

According to Payton, companies with poor data hygiene are the most susceptible to cyberattacks. When companies kept analog files, they would shred records when storage space was exhausted or when data reached a certain age. In a digital environment, storage space is cheap and seemingly limitless, meaning that data could—and probably will—live on servers for years. As time goes on and a company reorganizes, data is forgotten, creating prime points of entry for hackers. Adopting a data-“shredding” strategy is imperative.

In addition, the tools needed to hack into a system have become both affordable and readily available. Now anyone can be a hacker—and those who have chosen this path grow more adept at their craft every day. Taken altogether, this is a recipe for potential disaster.

Payton outlined best practices for maintaining optimal data hygiene:

  • Don’t keep all of your data in one place. For data you need to retain, “segment it to save it.” In other words, divide that information among multiple digital locations so that if one location is compromised, a hacker hasn’t gained access to the entirety of the data the company holds.
  • Create rules around when you no longer need data and set a schedule for “shredding” it.
  • “Shred” any data that you don’t need. Keep only data related to the attributes of consumer behaviors and get rid of the specifics (e.g., names and social security numbers). Doing so will reduce your risk of being held accountable when a breach happens.

Furthermore, she stressed that directors should be sure to ask certain questions as they work with management to hone the company’s cybersecurity strategies:

  • Have we identified our top critical assets—those that if held for ransom, lost, or divulged, would destroy us as a company?
  • Who has access to those assets? How do we grant access?
  • Have we drilled for a cyber breach disaster?
  • Do we have a liability plan that will cover the board should critical assets be breached?

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