Just a Theory

By David E. Wheeler

Posts about Goran Begic


In just about any discussion of GDPR compliance, two proposals always come up: disk encryption and network perimeter protection. I recently criticized the focus on disk encryption, particularly its inability to protect sensitive data from live system exploits. Next I wanted to highlight the deficiencies of perimeter protection, but in doing a little research, I found that Goran Begic has already made the case:

Many organizations, especially older or legacy enterprises, are struggling to adapt systems, behaviors, and security protocols to this new-ish and ever evolving network model. Outdated beliefs about the true nature of the network and the source of threats put many organizations, their information assets, and their customers, partners, and stakeholders at risk.

What used to be carefully monitored, limited communication channels have expanded into an ever changing system of devices and applications. These assets are necessary for your organization to do business—they are what allow you to communicate, exchange data, and make business decisions and are the vehicle with which your organization runs the business and delivers value to its clients.

Cloud computing and storage, remote workers, and the emerging preference for micro-services over monoliths1 vastly complicate network designs and erode boundaries. Uber-services such as Kubernetes recover some control by wrapping all those micro-services in the warm embrace of a monolithic orchestration layer, but by no means restore the simplicity of earlier times. Once the business requires the distribution of data and services to multiple data centers or geographies, the complexity claws its way back. Host your data and services in the cloud and you’ll find the boundary all but gone. Where’s the data? It’s everywhere.

In such an environment, staying on top of all the vulnerabilities — all the patches, all the services listening on this network or that, inside some firewall or out, accessed by whom and via what means — becomes exponentially more difficult. Even the most dedicated, careful, and meticulous of teams sooner or later overlook something. An unpatched vulnerability. An authentication bug in an internal service. A rogue cloud storage container to which an employee uploads unencrypted data. Any and all could happen. [They do happen][breacchlist]. Strive for the best; expect the worst.

Because it’s not a matter of whether or not your data will be breached. It’s simply a matter of when.

Unfortunately, compliance discussions often end with these two mitigations, disk encryption and network perimeter protection. You should absolutely adopt them, and a discussion rightfully starts with them. But then it’s not over. No, these two basics of data protection are but the first step to protect sensitive data and to satisfy the responsibility for security of processing (GDPR Article 32). Because sooner or later, no matter how comprehensive the data storage encryption and firewalling, eventually there will be a breach. And then what?

“What next” bears thinking about: How do you further reduce risk in the inevitable event of a breach? I suggest taking the provisions of the GDPR at face value, and consider three things:

  1. Privacy by design and default
  2. Anonymization and aggregation
  3. Pseudonymization

Formally, items two and three fall under item 1, but I would summarize them as:

  1. Collect only the minimum data needed for the job at hand
  2. Anonymize and aggregate sensitive data to minimize its sensitivity
  3. Pseudonymize remaining sensitive data to eliminate its breach value

Put these three together, and the risk of sensitive data loss and the costs of mitigation decline dramatically. In short, take security seriously, yes, but also take privacy seriously.

  1. It’s okay, as a former archaeologist I’m allowed to let the metaphor stand on its own.