Consider ITAD a Security Threat


How ITAM Benefits by Treating ITAD as a Threat

The Case for Considering ITAD a Security Incident

Organizations that focus on privacy take a serious look at all areas of potential vulnerability. One area of unappreciated vulnerability is the process of IT asset disposition (ITAD). When evaluating the sufficiency of an ITAD policy, organizations must be mindful of possible administrative fines, expensive remediation outlays, and costly punitive class action litigation. To ensure adequate safeguards are in place, IT asset managers should consider treating ITAD as if it were an inevitable security incident.

Breach Versus Incident

A data security incident is a situation that results in protected data potentially being viewed, used, or stolen by an unauthorized individual. When an incident occurs, a subsequent investigation is undertaken to determine whether or not there was a breach. The investigation determines if there was or was not a release of protected information to an untrusted environment.

Several factors determine if a release qualifies as a breach, including the number of individuals affected. It is important to recognize that a breach is a breach, regardless if data is accessed, regardless if individuals suffer actual damages, and regardless if there is public disclosure (more on this below).

Of course, not all security incidents rise to the level of breach. However, all security incidents require investigation to be compliant.

Incident Response

When a data security incident occurs, an obligation is created to prove there was not a breach. The burden of proof belongs to the organization. Incident response plans are designed in advance to reduce risk and ensure the organization can meet the burden of proof.

Mature organizations approach security incidents in a systematic way. Established standards, procedures, and guidelines must be followed to ensure a consistent and timely response. Besides being more efficient, a methodical incident response has the added benefits of reducing real damages if a breach occurred.

Response procedures vary depending on the type and severity of the security incident, but each has pre-defined steps (e.g. discovery, documentation, notification, containment, investigation, resolution, etc.). For each step, there are activities prescribed. For example, investigations typically include evidence collection, retention, analysis, and prioritization.

ITAD is an Incident

Organizations handle ITAD in different ways. Most commonly, retired IT assets are transported to a certified electronics recycler to be correctly processed and sanitized. When you ship a data-bearing asset to a disposal vendor, there is a real possibility that the asset could be lost or stolen in transit. Because of the potential for release of protected information to an untrusted environment, it is wise to consider every disposal shipment as a security incident waiting to happen.

Many organizations have already recognized the risk of in-transit loss. An increasing number of organizations now destroy data in-house, before disposal. The logic follows that you destroy data before a move, any loss of a particular asset might be unfortunate, but not be a disaster. In other words, the loss of an already sanitized asset might be considered an incident, but would not result in a breach.

While in-house data destruction is part of an effective disposal strategy, it is not sufficient. Having a policy of wiping or shredding hard drives from computers before disposal can create a false sense of security. Overly confident organizations often overlook other vulnerabilities. The biggest threat to ITAD occurs before a disposal project begins because trusted insiders can take retired assets before someone destroys the data.

Securing or destroying data before a move is wise. However, if an asset is lost or stolen in transit, there still must be convincing evidence for that specific asset showing it could not contain recoverable data. Someone is saying that she erased a hard drive is not convincing evidence; it is considered hearsay. There must be unimpeachable evidence to be convincing.

Investigating ITAD Incidents

Envisioning each ITAD project as an inevitable security incident is a valuable exercise – one that can help IT asset management establish adequate safeguards and controls to inhibit an incident from becoming a breach. ITAD incidents occur at three different points: before shipping an asset, during transit, and at the disposal vendor.

For this exercise, we consider only in-transit and disposal vendor-related incidents and focus simply on hard drives. To resolve an ITAD security incident, IT asset managers require two types of evidence:

A) Chain-of-custody evidence

B) Data destruction evidence

If a qualified disposal vendor receives an asset, it is reasonable to assume there was no release of private information during transit. If data destruction evidence exists, it is reasonable to conclude no breach occurred.

Anyone who has managed an ITAD project will attest, obtaining unimpeachable evidence for chain-of-custody or data destruction is easier said than done. Tracking proves asset chain-of-custody. Obtaining evidence that you sanitized the hard drive(s) in an asset, or you physically destroyed the drive, proves data destruction.

Detailed inventory reconciliation is required to determine if any particular asset is missing. If no evidence exists to prove that an asset was received (by the disposal vendor), that asset must be presumed lost or stolen. Efforts should be taken to locate the missing asset. If you cannot locate the asset, having evidence of data destruction becomes essential.

Whether data destruction is done in-house or off-site, IT asset managers should obtain and retain proof. If you purport to erase a hard drive, evidence requires a tamper-proof log file detailing successful software overwrite. If you purport to destroy a hard drive physically, evidence requires a serialized inventory detailing the date of destruction, a method of destruction, and the person responsible.

Independent Verification

Evidence of chain-of-custody and data destruction must be reliable, verifiable, and unimpeachable. Therefore, verification cannot be outsourced to the disposal vendor or delegated to the same employee responsible for physically performing ITAD activities.

Security incidents go undetected when an organization relies on employees to self-report incidents. Naturally, employees tend to report self-serving interpretations of the facts, especially when facts could make them look bad. Without independent reporting and verification, management receives heavily distorted information about incidents (if any).

A critical aspect of every major data security law is that organizations must minimize segregation-of-duties conflicts that create opportunities for theft and fraud. The focus to-date has been on access privileges (for example, if an employee has the ability to view private information without authorization). Considering ITAD an inevitable security incident gives IT asset management the objectivity necessary to see inherent conflicts-of-interest exist with ITAD programs as well.

ITAD is Inevitable

The theft or hack of an asset can result in headline-grabbing news. When an organization is using an IT asset, it is susceptible to all sorts of technical and physical attacks. Thankfully, not every asset is the target of an attack. During its lifecycle, an attack on an asset may never happen. Disposal is different. Unlike an attack, ITAD is inevitable.

The frequency and size of newsworthy breaches resulting from sophisticated attacks seem to be increasing. It is no surprise that organizations spend billions of dollars each year to thwart attacks. Organizations expend comparatively little to safeguard against ITAD incidents.

I am not suggesting that organizations reduce efforts to protect the assets they are using. I am suggesting organizations allocate adequate resources for IT asset managers to protect assets when they are retired.

Legal Obligations

Privacy laws mandate that an organization put in place adequate safeguards and effective controls to prevent and detect data security incidents. They also mandate that an organization must disclose any breach.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Privacy advocates probably don’t care. If a breach occurs and no one is around to hear about it, it is still a breach and privacy advocates do care. Disclosure provisions in privacy laws exist because organizations will not voluntarily advertise costly and embarrassing breaches.

An organization faces more severe sanctions and punitive litigation if it disregards disclosure obligation and a breach is later discovered. Considering ITAD an inevitable security incident will elevate the importance of IT asset management’s role in preventing a potential data breach.

In Conclusion

In the movie The Matrix, Morpheus offed Neo the option of taking the blue pill or red pill. IT asset managers already know about the painful truth of reality regarding ITAD data security risks. We do not get the choice of blissful ignorance. Even though organizations seldom view ITAD as an inevitable security incident, IT asset management should.

Acknowledging risks and inherent conflicts-of-interest will result in more effective ITAD policies and adequate safeguards. Applying established incident response procedures to the unavoidable process of ITAD can help raise awareness of unappreciated vulnerabilities.

Educating senior management about the risks will secure IT asset managers the resources needed to prevent an ITAD-related breach. Neo never knew about the Matrix until Morpheus opened his eyes. IT asset managers should consider ITAD an inevitable security incident, even if others do not yet recognize it as such. Management may still decide to swallow the blue pill, but we should give them a choice.

Additional Notes

Content for this article was originally published in ITAK, the abbreviation for IT Asset Knowledgebase. ITAK is the magazine of IAITAM, The International Association of Information Technology Asset Managers. IAITAM is a much-needed educational source for IT Asset Managers, CIOs, and CEOs.


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